PARCC, New Jersey, and A Harsh Lesson About the First Amendment

Over the weekend, the education bloggysphere was all atwitter (‘abuzz’ is so old media…) about Bob Braun’s revelation that Pearson, the creator of the PARCC-Common Core aligned tests, was monitoring test takers’ social media accounts without their knowledge (boldface mine):

Pearson, the multinational testing and publishing company, is spying on the social media posts of students–including those from New Jersey–while the children are taking their PARCC, statewide tests, this site has learned exclusively. The state education department is cooperating with this spying and has asked at least one school district to discipline students who may have said something inappropriate about the tests. This website discovered the unauthorized and hidden spying thanks to educators who informed it of the practice–a practice happening throughout the state and apparently throughout the country.

It turned out the student had posted–at 3:18 pm, well after testing was over–a tweet about one of the items with no picture. Jewett does not say the student revealed a question. There is no evidence of any attempt at cheating.

Jewett continues: “The student deleted the tweet and we spoke with the parent–who was obviously highly concerned as to her child’s tweets being monitored by the DOE (state education department).

“The DOE informed us that Pearson is monitoring all social media during the PARCC testing.”

Jewett continued: “I have to say that I find that a bit disturbing–and if our parents were concerned before about a conspiracy with all of the student data, I am sure I will be receiving more letters of refusal once this gets out.”

The school superintendent also expressed concern about “the fact that the DOE wanted us to also issue discipline to the student.” Clearly, if Pearson insists on claiming test security as a justification for its spying on young people, that reasoning is vitiated by its cooperation with the state education department in trying to punish students who are merely expressing their First Amendment right to comment on the tests.

(I’m quoting at length because Braun’s site suffered multiple denial-of-service attacks after posting the article)

Mark Weber puts it succinctly (boldface mine):

Think about what has happened here: at least one student exercised his right to free expression about important social issues — education and testing — after the administration of his test. But a private, foreign corporation decided their property rights trump his First Amendment rights, and they have used their relationship with a governmental agency to demand he be punished.

By all appearances, there was no attempt by the NJDOE [New Jersey Department of Education] to conduct an investigation as to what exactly the student tweeted, because, according to the WHRHS superintendent, the report the student tweeted a picture of the test was incorrect. NJDOE apparently just assumed Pearson’s report of the child’s tweet was accurate; I guess we all know now who’s holding the leash down in Trenton…

I can hear the objections now: “You’re not allowed to talk about any tests until everyone takes them! This is no different than if a kid discussed an AP test question and had his score canceled, or if he talked about a local chemistry test he took during period 2 with a kid who was going to take the same test in period 5!”

Actually, it is different. Quite different.

Regarding AP and SAT and ACT and other exams: these are all voluntary. You don’t have to take an AP exam; in fact, students can take AP courses without taking the exam, or take the exam without taking a course. No student is forced to take the SAT; if she chooses to do so, she then enters into a contract and agrees to the terms and conditions of the test.

It is unreasonable to force a child to take a test and then demand she remain silent about its contents in perpetuity. Pearson and the NJDOE, however, appear to be demanding exactly that. By insisting that all students must take the PARCC, NJDOE is, in effect, forcing students to give up their rights to free expression with no provision to opt out of the test and retain those rights.

These are assessment exams, not nuclear launch codes or cover identities for clandestine agents. It’s one thing if students are attempting to cheat, how can communicating after the exam be unlawful? Hell, if the contents are so damn valuable, then do a better job of timing the exams–that’s on Pearson and NJDOE, not children (some of whom don’t want to take the exams). The arrogance of ‘reformers’ is amazing, as they might just have provided legal remedy to students who don’t want to take the test.

Regardless, some kids in New Jersey learned a very important lesson, but I don’t think it was one Pearson and NJDOE intended.

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2 Responses to PARCC, New Jersey, and A Harsh Lesson About the First Amendment

  1. Parker says:

    Wow. My wife works for a NJ school system. My child will learn in a NJ school system. I feel completely hopeless, helpless, and angry at the information in this post. Then I went to Bob Braun’s blog and got caught up in articles about Ed Reform in Newark and Cami Anderson.

    I feel dead inside, the rage is so great.

    How can I hope to live well and have my child learn well in a state SO enamored by “certainty” … of a position, direction, goal… and so unable to judge underlying competence?


    …” But a private, foreign corporation decided their property rights trump his First Amendment rights, and they have used their relationship with a governmental agency to demand he be punished.”

    Double WTF?

  2. WTF says:

    Wow! I am monitoring your blog without your permission! You must be soo terrified.
    I am a foreigner, working in a foreign land, employed by a foreign corporation. Are you quaking in your boots now?

    Get your facts straight – someone reading (or even automatically monitoring) content posted on a public site is not spying.

    Someone posting an exam question before others have completed their exam is not fair – remember you do have timezones, and kids in Hawaii will take the exam hours after the kids in New Jersey.

    And lay off the Xenophobia!

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