Special report: Parents, students largely unaware of online monitoring during Common Core testing

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OXFORD--As Connecticut students are taking Smarter Balanced testing this May for the Common Core, social media sites are being monitored for test security breaches, largely unbeknownst to students, parents or school administrators.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is one of two nationwide tests administered to assess the Common Core standards. Connecticut and 20 other states, as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands and The Bureau of Indian Affairs, use Smarter Balanced testing. Other states use the PARCC test, developed by Pearson Publishing.

The Smarter Balanced test was first introduced in Connecticut last year as a field test, but was fully rolled out across all districts this school year. It is administered in grades 3-8 and 11.

Smarter Balanced employees at UCLA monitor social media sites during testing for any security breaches, such as posting pictures of test questions online.

The added security measure came as a surprise to Southington Superintendent Tim Connellan. In 2014, Connellan, then the superintendent of the Oxford Public Schools, received a call from the Connecticut State Department of Education alerting him to a test breach. The DOE received a call from Smarter Balanced only minutes after a student tweeted a picture of the test.

"He typed something into a text box, snapped it with his smart phone -- which he shouldn't have had, granted -- and then tweeted it out," explained Connellan. "And then apparently, it was retweeted."

Connellan explained that he had been in charge of administering the Smarter Balanced field test in Oxford, which included understanding test security, but was unaware of the monitoring.

"It certainly would have been appropriate for the information to come from the Smarter Balanced Assessment; to say 'Oh, by the way, we do have an additional level of security, we are going to be monitoring social media accounts,'" said Connellan.

In March, a New Jersey school district faced a similar situation. In an internal email leaked to a reporter, Watchung Hills Superintendent Elizabeth Jewett called the monitoring "a bit disturbing." Her email made national headlines and put test-maker Pearson Publishing in the spotlight.

Smarter Balanced said the monitoring is done so the test questions do not end up online.

In a statement to Fox CT, Smarter Balanced Deputy Executive Director Luci Willits said:

Test security and copyright protection are not new issues in testing; what's new is the social media landscape. No one would approve of a student making photocopies of the test and handing them out to their friends or posting the test on their locker. Posting test questions on the internet is no different. Every student deserves to have an authentic testing experience where they don't see questions ahead of time.

Parents Fox CT spoke with in the Southington School District were all unaware of the monitoring, but were not opposed to it.

"Actually, I think it's a good thing," said Pat Brino, a dad to a Southington High School junior. "Definitely try to keep everybody on the up and up. You just hear all these stories about compromises and whatnot when it comes to testing. So, I think it's a good thing that they're monitoring it."

Mom Lisa Statkevich was also on board with the monitoring, but said parents should be aware of what is happening.  "Maybe that information would be necessary to give so that someone doesn't come back and say, you know, 'I didn't know my son or daughter could be monitored during the test,'" said Statkevich.

Her son Alex, a junior at Southington High School, says students are constantly tweeting about school and might post something related to Smarter Balanced testing without understanding the ramifications.

"I would say one out of 10 tweets is about complaining about school or testing or a teacher even," said Alex Statkevich. "And usually kids don't use direct names because that would get them in trouble. Because we're always scared that someone's watching."

Smarter Balanced added that it cannot see any content published on private Facebook and Twitter accounts. Test monitors search for breaches using relevant hashtags, such as #SmarterBalanced or #commoncore, and can only see posts on public social media accounts.