Education Funding

State Chiefs Reaffirm Intent to Safeguard Student Data

By Catherine Gewertz & Michele McNeil — February 04, 2014 4 min read
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Amid the growing uproar over the collection and sharing of student data, schools chiefs from 34 states have banded together to make a public declaration that they will not share personally identifiable student data with the federal government.

But the letter was more of a political statement than a practical one.

In the Jan. 23 letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the state superintendents said they are trying to calm a rising tide of concern that student privacy is at risk in states administering assessments through two federally funded multistate consortia developing tests tied to the Common Core State Standards.

All of the chiefs are participating in test design through one of the consortia: the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, known as PARCC.

“We are writing today to confirm that the consortia will not share any personally identifiable information about K-12 students with [the U.S. Department of Education] or any federal agency,” the letter said. It has “long been the practice” of the federal Education Department not to require student-level data, and nothing about the consortia work changes that practice, the chiefs said.

“Our states have not submitted student-level assessment data in the past; the transition to the new assessments should not cause anyone to worry that federal reporting requirements will change when, in fact, the federal government is prohibited from establishing a student-level database that would contain assessment data for every student.”

Reassurance Offered

Data experts say that parents and others with concerns shouldn’t worry about states or assessment organizations sharing student-level data with federal officials.

“The U.S. Department of Education is prohibited from collecting this type of information,” said Paige Kowalski, the director of state policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign in Washington, which pushes states to adopt high-quality data systems. “However, it is easy to understand parent concerns in this regard, and more needs to be done to inform and reassure parents and other stakeholders around data collection, storage, and use. Letters like this aid in state efforts to be transparent about their use of data and their intent with regard to their participation in the assessment consortia.

“Parents are more likely to trust information coming from sources closer to home, so having a state official reiterate facts is critical to building trust,” she said.

U.S. Department of Education officials say they are reviewing the letter.

Mindful of growing concerns over data privacy, the Education Department clarified its data-collection requirements in a June 2013 letter, and has posted a “myths and facts” chart on its website that addresses data privacy.

That chart, for example, explains: “The department does not collect personally identifiable information at all except as required for mandated tasks such as administering student loans and grants and investigating individual complaints. The department is not legally authorized to create a national,student-level database and has no intention to create a student-records data system at the national level.”

The Education Department often takes great pains to mask any data that might come too close to identifying individual students. For example, in the school-level data collection conducted by the department’s office for civil rights—which includes sensitive information on student discipline by race—officials round every statistic to prevent any student’s identity from being revealed.

The states say they will continue to share such school-level data with the department as required by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and will “continue to retain control over” the privacy of student-level data, the letter said.

Not on the list of signatories were states that have a track record of being strongly committed to one or the other consortia, such as California (a Smarter Balanced state), as well as some, such as Kentucky and Indiana, that are wavering about whether they’ll use consortium tests or some other organization’s tests.

Consortia Under Pressure

The two assessment consortia are coming under increasing pressure to help their member states as they try to calm jitters that have arisen in some sectors about student-level test data.

A recent legislative study of assessment options, done by the state of Michigan, included that concern and made clear that many test providers are feeling the data-privacy heat as well. PARCC has approved a consortium wide data-privacy policy that governs how data will be handled at each step along the way, including by third-party vendors in the testing process. Smarter Balanced has a brief, general privacy principle, and is drafting more detailed privacy policies with each member state.

Concerns about the collection and sharing of student data are not just limited to the testing consortia. In New York, 40 districts have dropped out of the state’s Race to the Top grant amid the state’s plan to collect student data and store it in a cloud-based system run by inBloom, a private, nonprofit group.

A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as State Chiefs Reaffirm Pledge to Safeguard Student Data

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