House Hearing Weighs Student-Data Privacy Concerns

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 29, 2016 4 min read
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Congress last week weighed the concerns of parents, researchers, and educators about the sensitive intersection of education data and student privacy, though several pieces of legislation on the topic have yet to gain traction.

Among the issues aired at a recent House education committee hearing: parents’ desire for transparency and more control over what data are collected and how they are used; the need for researchers to have comprehensive and varied data; and states’ work to safeguard the data they collect, while ensuring the information’s usefulness to schools.

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 The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, passed in 1974, is widely seen as outdated because of its limited definition of a “student record” in a world where states, educational service vendors, and others are gathering new and diverse types of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 at a hearing last week.

‘Informed Consent’

Rachael Stickland, the co-chairwoman of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, said parents should be informed up front about the type of student data being collected and how they are 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.”

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 information that doesn’t directly relate 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 that 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.”

But Jane Hannaway, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University in Washington, 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.”

Such studies, Hannaway said, are often important in enhancing understanding of public schools, especially at a time when sociological research into K-12 is attracting more interest.

“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.

District Involvement

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

Whenever 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: “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, Swiggum said, “research does help teachers practice in the classroom much better.”

Asked by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., about whether parents put much pressure on schools about 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, a nonprofit advocacy group that backs school choice and digital education. Campbell pointed to the growing number of education technology firms that have signed the Student Privacy Pledge. By signing 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.

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.

Perhaps the most significant is the “Student Privacy Protection Act,” which was introduced in July by Rokita, the chairman of the House K-12 subcommittee, and Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio. Although it would alter FERPA in some ways, it’s not as dramatic a retrofit as that floated by Kline and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and the House education committee’s ranking member, a draft of which was circulated last April.

There’s also 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.

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

A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2016 edition of Education Week as Hearing Weighs Student-Data Privacy Concerns


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