On September 13, 2017 I attended the Philadelphia School Reform Commission’s monthly meeting and testified to the fact that public education has become an extractive industry, one that uses children to generate profits for private interests including global finance. The poem I wrote equated student data-mining with fracking, a toxic industry that has caused great harm to the state of Pennsylvania. Student data, the foundation of impact investing markets, is being aggregated at an astonishing rate as digital devices supplant face-to-face, human instruction in today’s “Future Ready” classrooms.
A bonanza of student data extraction is set to take place October 11 in Philadelphia. It is the date our district has designated students take, en masse, College Board tests.
Their products now include not only the PSAT and the SAT, but also the PSAT 8/9 and the PSAT 10. Many states are considering adopting the SAT as an alternative to high school exit exams, PARCC, Smarter Balanced, and other locally developed end-of-year high-stakes tests. I’m sure this is welcome news for David Coleman, since the College Board’s reputation has taken a beating following numerous crises associated with his realignment of the tests to Common Core State Standards.
Widespread adoption of in-school College Board testing means that the organization benefits not only from a growing pool of registration fees, but also from data elicited from the many students who opt in to the Student Search Service. The College Board can sell that data for up to 43 cents per profile. In a very real sense our children’s identities are being handed over to a private entity for private profit; and it is being done with thoughtless disregard by those who follow district directives without stopping to consider the insidious ways our students are being turned into commodities.
When families sign up to have their child take a College Board test outside of the regular school day, they have some measure of control over the Student Search Service opt in and whether or not they choose to answer or release demographic questions covering topics like religion, family income, citizenship, interests, educational aspirations, and GPA.
This becomes MUCH trickier when exams are given IN SCHOOL without parents playing a role in the registration process. In this scenario, the burden is NOW placed on the STUDENT to make the decision about their level of participation. Most parents are not aware of the various options they have regarding data to be shared, so the student is on his or her own to make a snap judgment if those conversations have not happened IN ADVANCE of the testing day. That simply isn’t right. Additionally, proctors may not always be forthcoming (or may not even know) which aspects of data collection are optional; so many students simply opt in to everything. Parents often have no idea until they start receiving random, unsolicited mailings. For additional information on the College Board, student data, and the Student Selection Process see these informative Washington Post articles from 2016 and 2017.
In 2016 the College Board redesigned its brand and developed a suite of assessments that follow children from middle school through college applications, thus maximizing value and opportunities for data collection. Their pitch is that by taking preparatory College Board tests year after year and availing themselves of “free” “personalized” learning programs offered through Khan Academy, children will be better positioned to win a prestigious National Merit scholarship. The catch? The number of scholarships hasn’t increased. There are just more students trying for the same small number of brass rings. Competition has become even more intense, creating an arms race of online test-prep that in turn fuels MORE data extraction via their partner-in-crime, Khan Academy.
This year in Philadelphia, parents are not required to pay for any of the tests with the exception of juniors signing up for the PSAT who do not have an economic exemption. Given that the SAT remains one of the primary gatekeepers to higher education in this country, I support equal access for all who wish to participate in the process, flawed as it is. Participation should be made available to families regardless of their economic status. That is only fair.
Seniors and the SAT? Yes, if you choose.
Juniors and the PSAT? Yes, if you choose.
10th graders and the PSAT? You can make a case for it.
But 8th and 9th graders…?
I draw the line there. I simply do not buy into the narrative that grooming 13 year olds for National Merit Scholarship competitiveness makes sense. If that is what is required, then the problem is with the testing regime itself. What is THAT data being used for? To benefit Philadelphia’s poor black and brown children? David, “people don’t really give a sh*t about what you feel or what you think,” Coleman? Please, tell me another one.
And who is footing the bill for the 8/9 PSAT? Surely there is not an insubstantial amount of money involved in testing (data-mining) ALL the 13 and 14 year olds in a large urban district. Is it our tax money? In a district like ours, one that has suffered years of austerity and deprivation; how about we put those resources towards enhancing meaningful student learning rather than over-testing and lining the pockets of private interests?
Parents need to be aware that no child HAS to take College Board tests. There are many SAT-optional colleges and universities, and the list continues to grow. It is up to YOU to make a choice as to what is best for YOUR child and YOUR family. We don’t all have to make the same choice, but I think everyone deserves to have the facts they need to make an informed decision. Children are increasingly defined by their data, commodified by it, and that is unconscionable. The market recognizes this data for what it is, a valued commodity. If they can stealthily take it when no one is looking, they will. We must resist this predatory data collection. We must also recognize that the decision about what data, if any, should be shared is a PARENT’s decision. It is NOT choice to be foisted on an unsuspecting child on exam day, which in Philadelphia will be October 11.
I have emailed my child’s principal and counselor and explained that she will not be participating in the Student Selection Service. She is a junior this year and has not taken ANY College Board tests up until this time. But this is the world we live in; so she will take it this year. However she will not answer any of the optional demographic questions. I have asked that the testing proctor announce to the class that the Student Selection Service is optional and to announce which of the survey questions are optional as well, because I think you have to read the fine print to know. I think every student in the Philadelphia School district deserves to have the same treatment, not just my child’s class at Masterman.
If you are a Philadelphia parent whose child is in grades 8-12, I ask you to consider contacting your child’s principal as well as Fateama Fulmore, Executive Director Office of High School Supports, at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask the following:
- Who is covering the associated fees for the tests, the 8/9 PSAT in particular?
- What is that cost?
- In what ways, if any, does the Philadelphia School District anticipate using the College Board data?
- If College Board data is NOT being used, why are the students in grades 8 and 9 being tested at all?
- Could a student’s scores limit their educational options down the line?
- Will any students be remediated with Khan Academy lessons based on their scores?
- State that parents must be notified at least a week prior to October 11 about the optional nature of the Student Selection Service and the optional demographic questions. This will give families the opportunity to discuss the issue and communicate their desires to their students in advance of the test.
- State that proctors at ALL testing schools are to share this information DURING administration of the test so that students can complete the forms according to their family’s wishes.
Data is a commodity. The College Board knows this. They would probably prefer that you did NOT know this. Let’s work together to ensure that families in Philadelphia and elsewhere make an informed choice about how their student’s information is used. It has value and should not be released without careful consideration.