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Education Data, Student Privacy Take Spotlight at Capitol Hill Hearing

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 22, 2016 6 min read
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Members of Congress weighed the concerns of parents, researchers, and educators about the sensitive intersection of education data and student privacy at a House education committee hearing Tuesday.

Among the topics: parents’ desire for transparency and more control over what data is collected and how it’s used; the need for researchers to have comprehensive and varied data; and the work states have done to try to safeguard the data they collect, while ensuring its usefulness to schools.

The hearing didn’t take place in a vacuum. Over the past year, several lawmakers have taken a crack at revamping federal rules for how states and districts have to handle sensitive student information. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, passed in 1974, is widely seen as outdated because of its limited definition of a “student record” in a world where states, educational service vendors, and others are gathering new and diverse types of data about students.

“More student information is being collected than ever before, often without the knowledge of parents and school officials,” said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn. the chairman of the committee, in opening remarks.

So far, however, recent proposals to address FERPA and related issues haven’t progressed as far as some would hope. (More on that below.)

‘Informed Consent’

Rachael Stickland, the co-founder and co-chairwoman of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, made a pitch for informing parents up front about the type of student data being collected and how it’s used. She said, by way of example, that the hundreds of data points that the Colorado longitudinal data system collects on each student “effectively become lifelong dossiers.”

And Stickland also said parents should be able to opt their children out of having their data stored in state data systems, asserting that states are often collecting data that doesn’t directly related to a student’s academic performance.

In an exchange with Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., Stickland acknowledged that she was unaware of any student data from a state system being sold, and she noted there hasn’t been a serious breach of K-12 data at the state level. But that doesn’t mean schools and officials shouldn’t do more to involve parents, she argued.

“There is no informed consent,” Stickland said, adding later that parents are the “ultimate stakeholders.”

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., echoed this concern when she said that education-data advocates should proceed with caution: “I am very concerned about any government agency getting any individual data.”

But Jane Hannaway, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, argued that allowing parents to remove their child’s data from state systems at their discretion would turn the crucial material education researchers need to study issues, such as the distribution of high-quality teachers, into “Swiss cheese.”

These research studies, Hannaway said, are often important in enhancing understanding of public schools, especially at a time when sociological research into K-12 is an increasingly hot topic.

“We would be coming to conclusions on faulty data,” Hannaway said, if parental opt-out became part of federal policy.

Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., said that while he wants student data to be safeguarded appropriately, educational research helped to establish the link between poverty and educational outcomes and subsequently paved the way for the Title I grant program for low-income students.

Hannaway stressed that the data she receives as an educational researcher is stripped of personally identifiable information by states before she receives it, and that she would not inappropriately probe for student information: “I would lose my job.”

District Involvement

Districts have played a key role in ensuring that the state handles student data smartly and makes it useful for them and for schools, said Robert Swiggum, the deputy superintendent of technology services at the Georgia education department.

For one thing, any time someone asks the state to collect a piece of data, Swiggum noted, the department first has to see if it’s authorized by state government in some fashion: “We don’t collect data just because somebody wants to look at them.” And the department fends off thousands of attempts to hack its student data system every year, he said.

At the local level, schools that use parent data in a smart way can actually increase parent engagement and involvement with their children’s education, Swiggum said. He highlighted how education data has helped push policies related to absenteeism and school climate in Georgia.

“Research does help teachers practice in the classroom much better,” Swiggum said.

Asked by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., about whether parents put a lot of pressure on schools about student data collection and handling, Swiggum responded that it doesn’t seem to be a controversial issue for most parents.

Vendors, meanwhile, are increasingly aware of the importance of handling student data in a proper way, said Neil Campbell, the director of next generation reforms at the Foundation for Excellence in Education—he pointed to the growing number of education technology firms that have signed the “Student Privacy Pledge.” By signing onto the pledge, vendors say they will not sell student data or target advertising based on student data, among other promises.

“That shows they are taking the issue seriously,” he said, adding that vendors must understand that their data collection should only relate to the academic services they provide.

Without comprehensive collection of educational data, Campbell said, interventions with students who are struggling with reading in the early grades would not have had any objective basis. And he said that the new Every Student Succeeds Act bolsters such efforts by allowing states to train educators in privacy issues using Title II funds.

Recent Overhaul Efforts

So far in this session of Congress, there have been a few congressional efforts to overhaul federal education law governing education data and student privacy, but they’ve failed to get over the finish line.

• There’s the “Student Privacy Protection Act," which was introduced last July by Todd Rokita, R-Ind., the chairman of the House K-12 subcommittee, and Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio. It’s the successor to the Kline-Scott proposal released earlier in 2015, and it would impose less far-reaching changes on FERPA than envisioned by House committee members a few months earlier.

The Rokita-Fudge bill is the successor to a draft of a FERPA rewrite proposed by House education committee leadership last April. Released by Kline and ranking member Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., their draft would have expanded the federal definition of an “educational record” and would have imposed new requirements on state and local education agencies contracting with outside vendors charged with handling student data.

In addition, the proposal from Kline and Scott rewrite included a parental opt-out provision of the type that Hannaway raised concerns about at the Tuesday hearing. That was eliminated in the Rokita-Fudge bill.

• There’s the “Student Digital Privacy and Parental Rights Act” (which the FERPA rewrite would complement) that was championed by the White House. It’s a bipartisan proposal from Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind. There’s a similar bill in the Senate, from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.

• Finally, there are also two proposals in the Senate, introduced last year, to alter laws governing student privacy and education data

One bill, from Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would prohibit the use of personally identifiable student data for marketing and advertising purposes, and limit the student information that’s transferred from students to private companies. The other, from Sen. David Vitter, R-La., would be a big departure from FERPA—his proposal would outlaw data-sharing practices that have become common in recent years, and require educational institutions to obtain parental consent before sharing student information with third parties, among other changes.

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