The Louisiana state chief’s decision to remove student data from a nonprofit group’s database is highlighting privacy concerns in an age when a growing number of K-12 officials and companies are interested in using data about students to change instruction.
Schools superintendent John White decided last month to withdraw student data from the Atlanta-based nonprofit organization inBloom, which had been storing it for the state, and to have discussions with parents about concerns for the confidentiality of data that included students’ age, sex, and grade level.
He did so not long after expressing support for the state’s work with inBloom.
“We’re going to go to our families and have a discussion about our data-storage practices, not having anything to do with inBloom,” Mr. White said.
InBloom says it aims to improve classroom instruction by providing data on individual students to technology and content providers, allowing for more personalized learning.
It receives funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Both philanthropies also help support Education Week‘s coverage of business and K-12 innovation.)
School districts partnering with inBloom include New York City, two systems in Illinois, and one in North Carolina. The group’s website indicates that its only statewide partner, until recently, was Louisiana, with three other states (Delaware, Georgia, and Kentucky) slated to conduct inBloom pilot programs this year.
However, according to Reuters, New York has also reached a deal to work with inBloom on a statewide basis.
In Louisiana, Mr. White said, the state had been storing student data with inBloom so that vendors in the state’s Course Choice program could verify basic information, such as name, sex, and birth date, submitted by parents on applications. Course Choice allows students to enroll in academic and career education programs offered by institutions around the state.
Beyond being used for verification, Louisiana student data with inBloom didn’t migrate to any Course Choice providers, Mr. White said: “No data are shared with any vendor.”
Despite his previous support, Mr. White announced in April that Louisiana was removing its student data from inBloom. The decision came just a day after Mr. White reiterated his support for the state’s arrangement with inBloom to the state school board.
What prompted the change, Mr. White said, were public concerns about how student information was and wasn’t being used in the arrangement.
InBloom has a “privacy commitment” page intended to allay fears about violations of students’ privacy. It says, for example, that “neither inBloom nor any other participating agency or vendor may sell, assign, lease, or commercially exploit confidential student data,” and that its financial backers don’t have access to such data.
Privacy Concerns Raised
But some groups remain concerned about student privacy.
For example, Class Size Matters, a New York City-based group that lobbies for small class sizes, said the arrangements could compromise privacy in spite of inBloom’s claims.
“The plan to share personally identifiable and highly confidential student data in such an unrestricted manner, in an open-ended time frame, without parental notification or consent,” the group contends on its blog, “is unprecedented in U.S. history, and would violate both [Federal Trade Commission] and [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] protections if they had authority over student records.”
The privacy of student data was also a concern mentioned in the resolution adopted by the Republican National Committee in April officially opposing the Common Core State Standards. (InBloom says the common core will require new technology and data platforms of the kind inBloom will support.)
The privacy and security section of inBloom’s website states that “inBloom Inc. cannot guarantee the security of the information stored in inBloom or that the information will not be intercepted when it is being transmitted.”
Asked about that language, Mr. White said: “I don’t know. I’m not a lawyer, and I can’t speak for them.”
Response From inBloom
In a letter that inBloom CEO Iwan Streichenberger sent last month to districts it was working with, he referred to Mr. White’s action as a “pause” in the relationship, and said that inBloom supported the superintendent’s decision.
“The pause also supports Louisiana’s efforts to transition from using Social Security numbers (SSNs) to randomized student ID numbers, in keeping with inBloom’s requirements and with industry best practices,” Mr. Streichenberger wrote.
Until recently, inBloom had allowed states and districts to apply for a waiver of the group’s policy in order to use student Social Security numbers for data purposes, but inBloom said it never granted such a waiver and will no longer consider granting any.
The superintendent previously had expressed confidence that no student data would be misused through Louisiana’s relationship with inBloom. He said the decision to withdraw data from inBloom did not contradict his earlier statements in support of the arrangement. He didn’t specify whether he’d be interested in re-establishing the prior relationship.
Mr. White noted that the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act would cover arrangements Louisiana would have with any vendor.
A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2013 edition of Education Week as La. Ends Data-Storage Arrangement With Nonprofit