Grand Theft Education – A Possiblity

Reading a Jon Pelto post we learned that the Core Curriculum, at least in Connecticut, requires computer testing. Apparently to make this possible the State is “investing” $22 million in loans to buy those computers. I have not had the time to study the Core Curriculum, but from what I understand it is being pushed by education “reformers” that have little educational experience or credentials. It is so popular in Connecticut that the state is spending $1 million on a publicity campaign to convince us of its benefits.

So, what does that have to do with voting?

Nothing directly. But indirectly, two things:

  • First if education is destroyed, we lose citizens required for the functioning of democracy. We can all agree that education needs improvement as a prerequisite for our democracy to thrive and to survive. Maybe the Core Curriculum is a good way forward, maybe not. In any case any way forward that depends on testing, depends on the integrity of that testing.
  • Second, electronic testing is similar to electronic voting. The form of electronic testing is only as safe as the systems chosen and the administration and controls surrounding the system itself. What we know from electronic voting is that we need voter verified paper ballots (paper test forms), a good chain of custody on that paper, before and after the votes (tests) are electronically counted, along with scientifically rigorous audits. It would be a helpful start, if the systems used were subject to the equivalent of the California Top To Bottom Review of voting equipment.

Motive, Opportunity, and Evidence

  • Motive: It is not called “High Stakes Testing” without good reason. Students can gain from passing grades, admission to better schools, and keeping parents at bay. Teachers can gain by keeping their jobs, better jobs, promotion and bonuses. Administrators can receive gains similar to teachers, plus local and national fame. Perhaps most of all those with a stake in education reform – achieving their favorite reform, or preventing it – have the most to gain or lose.
  • Opportunity: It is always possible for anyone with Internet/Computer skills to hack into a system and compromise it either directly or with the aid of an accomplice with those skills. Yet, it might be quite a challenge for students, teachers, and local administrators depending on how the system is built. Students, teachers, and administrators would have to have access to the questions and the correct answers, in addition to compromising the system (unlike voting, where there are just a few items on a ballot, and the ‘correct’ choice for a fraudster is clear).

    For system insiders, as opposed to outsiders, the opportunity is much much greater. Systems would presumably be more centralized, additional complexity would make testing very challenging. Similar to voting there is no exact expected result for each student or a collection of students, no double entry bookkeeping like electronic banking.

    Here we must mention that education “reformers” with goals of “transforming” education, via privatization and the elimination of unions include leaders in our Federal Government, many state governments, and leaders of companies that make our computers, such as Bill Gates. (He has donated millions in Connecticut and elsewhere to support the efforts of favored reformers). Recent NSA Snowdon revelations have shown, among other things, that the NSA watches bugs in Microsoft Windows and exploits them before they are fixed and that backdoors are added to systems during shipping – similar approaches could be used to compromise testing. There is clearly opportunity for insiders to take control of electronic testing whether it depends on centralized servers, decentralized servers, or the computers used by the individual students.Note:

    One advantage of electronic testing, depending on how it is accomplished, is that it may make cheating in the “old fashioned ways” a bit more difficult. Questions may not be known in advance, so that “teaching to the test” might preclude providing teaching to the exact questions and answers just prior to the test. With no paper tests, then the opportunity to compromise the paper before grading would be eliminated.  All of these would tend to make it more difficult for students and teachers to cheat, yet do nothing to mitigate the greater opportunities for insiders, especially those with the most to gain.

  • Evidence: There have been several recent test cheating scandals by teachers and administrators. None more instructive than the recent one in Hartford. A school achieving national fame (Newshour Report) for almost magical transformation of reading progress, was exposed as simple test cheating. What can we learn from this?
    • Cheating is real, and if undetected can provide fame and fortune. (At the expense of students and the reputations of all involved, guilty and innocent)
    • Here it was detected by statistical analysis showing questionable patterns.
    • And proven ONLY by the existence of student completed paper tests, even though they were held under lax security.

With electronic testing, we would not have that same paper record available to audit, nor necessarily the same statistics to review – and an opportunity for more sophisticated fraud that would more easily avoid statistical detection (For instance, with access to student data from the past, gains and test results could be correlated to students past results, while randomly selected easier incorrect answers corrected).


One more issue is security of test data and the scope of its disclosure.  In voting we are concerned with the “secret vote”, so that votes cannot be bought, sold, or coerced. When it comes to student data, there are other privacy issues, similar to those with medical data. Any automated collection and retention of test data or other student data should be of concern.  What could be done with such data? What or would our Government do with such data?

Unfortunately, for many students we have an answer in an example. The U.S. Military currently, in violation of international children’s rights deviously collects extensive data on high school students and uses the data to help recruit for the military. Here is a current review based on FOI requests of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery Career Exploration Program <read> To make a long story short, the test is administered to high school students in school, often under false pretenses that it is mandatory, and then the data used in ways that violate U.S. Law, Military Regulations, and the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child.

This is an issue with any type of automated testing, even paper testing than is recorded permanently. It goes beyond the Military, to any Government agency such as the NSA, and to any private company that may accumulate that data, the data’s protection, sale, and potential use for all sorts of illegitimate purposes.


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