- Gumbo Ya-Ya or, What Pearson Can’t Hear:Opt-Out, Standardized Testing, and Student Surveillance
As end-of-course and end-of-grade testing season approaches in North Carolina, schools and school districts have been contacting members of the UNC School of Education with requests for aid in proctoring the upcoming tests. Mandates require that test administrators be accompanied by a proctor in order to protect the security of the testing environment. While this practice promotes suspicion about public school teachers who serve as test administrators, the mandate also presents the logistical problem of providing enough adults to serve as proctors for the hundreds of tests taken by students at the end of the school year. The proliferation of state-mandated tests, coupled with requirements for separate setting accommodations, creates a practical dilemma for schools. This ground-level tension between the mandates of standardized testing and the limited availability of resources necessary for compliance is an issue in the debate over opt-out policies that tends to be overlooked. While proponents and opponents see standardized testing as a philosophical, political and ideological battlefield where the stakes include virtues such as freedom and equality, or the existential qualities of epistemology and ontology, or the social factors of race, poverty, cultural capital, and disparity, testing coordinators are desperately looking for warm bodies to pace laps in a classroom for hours on end to ensure that teachers are not helping students fill in bubble sheets. Teachers and administrators are justifiably concerned about testing security lest they be charged with racketeering and suffer criminal sentencing or other disciplinary measures.
This elaborate performance of oversight is just one way that the testing apparatus, initially established with good intention, has driven focus away from teaching and learning and has become a force which now operates of its own volition, an automated beast come to life, limited in scope but acting as though its perspective defines the entirety of educational goals. The revelation that Pearson Publishing is spying on schoolchildren’s digital postings (Strauss, 2015b) to keep them from passing along newly aligned Common Core standardized test questions further indicates how much the environment of testing has acceded to its own internal logic. The story, first reported by blogger Bob Braun, recorded a letter sent by Elizabeth C. Jewett, the Superintendent of the Watchung Hills Regional High School District in New Jersey (Braun, 2015). In the correspondence, Superintendent Jewett reported that she had been contacted by officials at the New Jersey Department of Education concerning a testing security breach during a PARCC exam. Upon investigation, Jewett discovered that after school hours, a student did indeed tweet content that “referenced a PARCC test question” (Chiaramonte, 2015). Importantly, Jewett revealed that the Department of Education had informed her that Pearson was monitoring all social media for student references to PARCC testing. Pearson Publishing has responded that they are bound by contracts with states to ensure test security. Their statement reads, “Pearson is contractually required by states to monitor public conversations [End Page 285] on social media to ensure that no assessment information (text, photos, etc.) that is secure and not public is improperly disclosed (Pearson, 2015a).
In this way, Pearson has situated itself as part of the state enforcement apparatus presumably performing their duties in accordance with the will of the people. However, companies such as Pearson and SAS (whose value-added metrics remain a “proprietary secret” in North Carolina where they have been purchased and used in rating teachers) who defend their lack of transparency as though they were state secrets are refusing to play by the same rules that they insist upon for other participants in public education. They back a tautological argument that displaces accountability ad infinitum.
Another illustration of the deceptive logic of the corporate-state actors is visible in the mission statement on Pearson’s website, which also demonstrates the shift in focus from teaching and learning to the self-referential logic of their own business goals. It reads, in part:
The learner is at the center of everything we do. Our commitment to them means that we’re continually measuring the impact our products and services make...