Catherine Martinez: Kids share test info on social media? That's non-news

Breaking news: thousands of students took the FSA writing test last week with no glitches or slowdowns. Oh, wait, shouldn’t this be a non-news story? This is only news because of the slowdowns and cyberhacks of the previous week. The Florida Department of Education is not yet ready to release the final number of students who started the test, were booted off and were unable to finish, or those who started, were logged off and were able to get back in and finish, or those who had a completely uneventful testing experience. There is also a small percentage of students whose tests were finished but lost by the system.

Another non-news story is that Pearson, who creates the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test used by several states such as New Jersey and New York, has contracted with Tracx, a company that claims it can data mine social media in order to check for security breaches by students and staff. According to a letter sent out by a New Jersey superintendent, Pearson was able to track down a tweet about a test prompt to an individual student. The company contacted the school and demanded that the child be disciplined. She has since taken down the tweet.

This is a non-story to anyone who has worked with teenagers and understands their fascination with social media. Myspace was once the darling of the high school crowd but has already gone the way of the dinosaurs. While we old fogies are just getting up the speed with Facebook and Twitter, my students have moved on to Instagram, SnapChat and Kik. Snapchat reported 700,000 messages sent per day in 2014. These messages are automatically deleted in 1 to 10 seconds but a recipient with fast reflexes should be able to capture a screenshot. Kik is currently trending in the middle and high school crowd. It would be a story only if students were not sharing their testing experiences on social media.

That Pearson is data mining to check for security breaches is another non-story. They would be crazy not to use the technology available, especially since they are already a secretive company that refuses to release old test items, unlike the College Board. It is also not that shocking that school personnel work closely with the company to do their bidding. The fact that AIR apparently does not use data mining to keep track of what students are doing on social media is more evidence that they are not that tech savvy.

Students posting information about the PARCC or Florida Standards Assessments, for that matter, fall into a gray legal area. Teachers, administrators and staff are required to sign a long security agreement that includes promises not to talk about the test, not to look at test items and not to post information about the test on social media. As school board employees, we can lose our jobs and our teaching license if we break the security contract.

But what about students? They are not school employees but more like consumers. If someone buys a Coca Cola and is able to figure about the ingredients by taste, shouldn’t they be able to publish their findings without being threatened by legal action? Parents who ask their children about the test are finding that students say they “can’t” tell them anything, which raises some troubling questions. Is there anything that a minor should not be able to share with their parent or guardian? Aren’t parents the ones who have the final say about what a teenager can post on social media? In the end, what can Pearson really do? Minors cannot sign a security agreement; only parents can sign. Parents are not employees of the testing company. If the company wants to bring suit, what would be the basis?

The company can refuse to test a student whose parents will not sign the agreement. This might not be much of a threat for parents who are already looking for a way to opt out of the whole testing process. Even schools disciplining or expelling a student for posting about the test could get the schools in trouble since it could be considered a breach of privacy – which is ironic, since so many students using social media don’t seem to have a sense of privacy.

Martinez Catherine Shore Martinez is a National Board Certified teacher at Pahokee Middle Senior High School in Palm Beach County. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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