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Push for P-20 Data Systems Raises Privacy Concerns
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As states ramp up their longitudinal student data systems, they are collecting more information than necessary and failing to take appropriate measures to safeguard student privacy, a national study concluded. The Fordham Law School Center on Law and Information Policy reviewed publicly available educational records from all 50 states to investigate whether children have adequate legal and technical protection from data misuse and information breaches.

The study concluded that state databases generally have weak privacy protections, and the transfer of information between local and state agencies is often not compliant with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Additionally, 80% of states do not have protocols for purging student records, and are thus likely to maintain them indefinitely. (Of interest, the only remedy on the books for a FERPA violation is for the Department of Education to withhold federal education funding; the Fordham Center could not find one instance in which funding was withheld.)

The study also found that some states collect data far beyond standardized test scores including Social Security numbers, disciplinary records, and family wealth indicators in what "appeared to be non-anonymous student records." Additionally, at least 22% of schools record student pregnancies, and 46% of the states track student mental health, illness and jail sentences as descriptors of why a student dropped out of school.

A few states record some health information about students. New Jersey and Kentucky keep track of the date of a student's last medical exam. South Dakota documents how much kids weigh as part of its child obesity program.

The push for statewide databases that follow students from pre-school through entry into the workforce began with the 1990s emphasis on testing and standards, grew significantly under federal No Child Left Behind mandates, and has been considerably boosted by policies of the Obama administration. Lured by the promise of federal money awarded through the Race to the Top grant competition and other parts of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, states are working to design computer systems that can share information statewide. The goal is to make data easily available to teachers, parents, researchers and interested government bureaucrats.

"Ten, 15 years later, these kids are adults, and information from their elementary, middle and high school years will easily be exposed by hackers and others who put it to misuse," said Fordham law professor Joel R. Reidenberg, who oversaw the Fordham study. States are "trampling the privacy interests of those students," he charged.

The report made numerous recommendations to beef up student privacy. Suggestions included collecting only information relevant to articulated purposes, purging unjustified data, enacting time limits for data retention, hiring a Chief Privacy Officer for each state, and tightening procedures to ensure data is anonymous at the state level (though individually identifiable at the local level).

These recommendations are likely to go unheeded, however, because the U.S. Department of Education argues that collecting and analyzing personally identifiable data is "at the heart of improving schools and school districts." One of the four reform mandates of the Race to the Top competition is to establish pre-kindergarten to college-and-career data systems that "track progress and foster continuous improvement." Federal stimulus funds provide at least $250 million to help states build such student data warehouses.

Proponents claim that data at the student-identifiable level is necessary to enable policymakers and educators to evaluate student and teacher performance at the school, district and state level. They say the ability to track individual students will enable educators to predict which students are in danger of dropping out, determine which teachers and curricula best prepare students for college and work readiness, and track trends in yearly academic progress by ethnicity and income level, among other things. The ability to correlate students with particular teachers could also help determine which teacher training programs produce effective educators.

Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan has an important ally for promoting and funding student data systems in the Data Quality Campaign (DQC), an organization founded in 2005, largely with money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Secretary Duncan has been criticized about being particularly cozy with the Gates Foundation, whose largesse has afforded it a significant voice in education reform efforts (Education Week, 1-20-10).

According to its own documents, a primary aim of the DQC is to "create the political demand for sharing data" by using the "bully pulpit to talk about the need for information to follow individual students, even across state and district lines, and to break down the traditional silos." Having largely reached that goal — as evidenced by Obama Administration education priorities and the organization's partnership with more than 50 organizations across the country — the DQC has turned its attention to pushing demand for data collection and analysis from teachers, school boards and administrators.

The organization's January 2010 publication, The Next Step, lauds the "enormous progress" states have made in developing data systems, but takes states to task for not going beyond compliance measures to proactively "alter policies, programs and practices to spur continuous improvement at every level." In other words, teachers, school districts and state policymakers have thus far not used the data they already have to make education decisions, even as an increasing number of personal details about each student are stored.

In the thrust to use data to better inform education policy, the concern for privacy protection seems almost an afterthought. The DQC affirms that confidential student data needs to remain private but emphasizes, "Data are only useful if people are able to access, understand and use them."

DQC executive director Aimee Guidera admitted that unnecessary data have "probably" been collected in some cases, but said the larger concern is most states' lack of a "strategic, thoughtful way of connecting information and using it to answer questions." The DQC website explicitly supports linking education provider data with "workforce, social services and other critical state agency data systems."

A recent Education Week article noted that privacy laws have made it challenging to link K-12 and postsecondary data in states that prohibit schools from storing students' Social Security numbers; however, the Fordham Center found that 16 states already record each child's SSN. It is also possible that some states might opt to change their statutes concerning SSN data to pave the way for receiving more federal money to implement longitudinal student databases. The changing of such laws may be what the DQC has in mind with their current focus of "helping states identify and put in place the necessary policies and practices" necessary to implement "robust" student-level longitudinal data systems.

All 50 states now have at least five of the DQC's ten "essential elements" for a statewide longitudinal data system in place, up from 29 states meeting that benchmark in 2005. Within the next three years, 47 states plan to have eight or more elements in place. "This is something that's going to happen, and it's happened at a really breakneck pace over the past year," said Ben Passmore, director of policy research for the University System of Maryland. (Education Week, 12-21-09; The Washington Post, 10-28-09)

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