School & District Management

Want Public Approval for Using Student Data? Take a Page from West Virginia

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 12, 2017 3 min read
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By next July, the Every Student Succeeds Act will require every state to report on the academic progress of a slew of new groups of students, from military families and homeless students to advanced learners—information only a handful of states report now.

“The public reporting requirements in ESSA have the potential to change everything,” said Aimee Guidera, president and chief executive officer of the Data Quality Campaign, which today released its annual report on state data use. “Do we think they can do it? Yes, every state has that information and ESSA will put pressure on states to put that information out there. ... But yeah, it’s a heavy lift.”

And states will be making that lift without much federal guidance, as the laws governing education research and student data privacy are roughly 10 and 40 years out of date, respectively. “It’s critical that states don’t separate the privacy conversation from the data collection and use conversation,” Guidera said. “That’s game changing, it’s not an afterthought.”

West Virginia is one state working to keep teachers and the public on board with using student data. Four years ago, the state saw confusion drain public support for its multimillion-dollar statewide longitudinal student database.

“From the general public there was not even really an awareness of what the education data was used for,” said Georgia Hughes-Webb, the state’s data director. “There was a lot of concern and misconceptions. ... People were saying, ‘Oh you have to send 400 pieces of data to the federal government, and the fed government will get all this data on your children.’ We had to say, ‘We aren’t sending data on individual children anywhere.’ I have two little girls in school; privacy is very personal to me.”

The state brought together data and research experts, educators, and the public to develop a new state data web site, which rolled out in 2013. The site included short, simply written summaries of exactly what data the state collected and why it needed them. It also included information on how parents and researchers could use the information and the laws and procedures that protected the data.

The nonprofit Data Quality Campaign’s annual analysis of state data use found 17 states and Washington, D.C. have built fully connected systems linking student information from early childhood, through K-12 and college, and into the workforce. Nearly 30 states provide targeted access to the data for different stakeholders, from researchers and teachers to parents and courts.

But only 1 in 4 parents nationwide reported using a state website to find information about their child’s education, and the DQC found most state websites used jargon and technical language that wouldn’t be easily understandable to parents and the public.

“The transparency piece is going to be the most important [for states]: Being clear about what is being collected, why it is being collected, and only collecting what is critically necessary to improve education,” Guidera said.

Training for Education Data Use

DQC also found West Virginia is one of only seven states that has passed a law requiring those who collect and use student data to be trained on how to protect the information. “We make an effort to be as inclusive as possible,” Hughes-Webb said. “We’ve even had training for school cooks, because they have access to information like student allergies."And Hughes-Webb said she is regularly in districts, providing training to the teachers and staff who work with the data on how to use it safely. “It’s all well and good to talk about regulation, it’s good to know what the law says. But then we talk about what it means practically in their lives—like how the notes they take on a student to jog their memory in class should be protected, or locking their [computer] screen when not using it. Just talking about FERPA guidelines doesn’t tell our educators what they can personally do to help keep their kids’ information safe.”

The combination of extensive training and public awareness campaigns has helped build support for using data in the state, Hughes-Webb said.

Guidera agreed. “You see the difference in states that are baking that engagement into how they do the work,” she said, adding that greater transparency “takes the boogeyman out of the closet when parents don’t have to guess about what is being collected and how it is being used.”

The DQC will hold a Twitter chat on state efforts to improve data use and privacy from 3-4 p.m. Eastern time, under the tag #TimeToAct17.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.