State Chiefs to Arne Duncan: We Won’t Share Student Data

By Catherine Gewertz — January 24, 2014 2 min read
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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.

In a letter sent to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan Thursday afternoon, the state superintendents said they are trying to calm a rising tide of concern that administering student assessments through the two federally funded multistate consortia—PARCC and Smarter Balanced—puts the privacy of personally identifiable student data at risk. All of the chiefs are participating in test design through one of the consortia.

“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.”

The states will continue to share 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.

We’re sure you don’t need us to tell you that data privacy has become a hot topic in education, and the two assessment consortia have felt those ripples. They’ve found themselves 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, conducted by the state of Michigan, included this 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.

Not present 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 (Smarter Balanced), as well as some that are wavering about whether they’ll use consortium tests or some other organization’s tests, such as Kentucky and Indiana.

The education department, for its part, has clarified its data-collection requirements in a letter, and has posted a myths-and-facts chart on its website that addresses data privacy. It includes this tidbit: “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.”

Whether the U.S. Ed. Department will feel it’s necessary to go beyond such statements to respond to the chiefs’ letter remains to be seen.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.