Privacy & Security

Nevada Dad Told It Will Cost $10K to See School Data State Collects on His Children

By Benjamin Herold — May 29, 2014 5 min read
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Nevada education officials this month told a local man it would cost more than $10,000 to access the data the department has collected on his four children, raising a tangled web of questions about everything from the structure of state educational databases to the interpretation of federal student-privacy laws to the implementation of new Common Core State Standards.

John Eppolito, whose children attend public school in the 62,000-student Washoe County school district, described his request in an interview with television station KRNV in Reno, Nev.

“I just want to see any information that the state of Nevada is tracking on my children and any information that could be shared with others,” he said.

According to a May 14 memo prepared by the Office of the Nevada Attorney General for Dale A.R. Erquiaga, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, Eppolito “requested an opportunity to view his children’s data in the System of Accountability Information in Nevada (SAIN) or Nevada State Longitudinal Data System (SLDS).”

The response from state officials was that no readable records on individual children are currently maintained in those data systems. State agencies are not required by law to create a record that doesn’t exist, the attorney general’s office wrote, and requests for educational records of the type made by Eppolito are best directed to local districts.

In a statement provided to Education Week by spokeswoman Judy Osgood, the Nevada education department echoed that logic.

“The Nevada Department of Education’s data system cannot compile information in the format Mr. Eppolito requested without the creation of a special computer program,” according to the statement. “The data system is secure and private, but has not been built with an application to create confidential education records for individual students.”

The cost of developing such an application, state officials said, would be $10,194—for 120 hours of staff time to “build, test, and validate a new application that will be able to display individual student data in a readable format.”

In an interview, Paige Kowalski, the director of state policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy group, said that the situation highlights the widespread confusion that characterizes the rapidly shifting data landscape.

“Districts and states have a responsibility to make sure parents are getting frequent and useful information” about their children’s educational progress, Kowalski said. “But parents have different rights, and need different policies and protections, depending on what the data are. That’s what we’re struggling with.”

Under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, parents and students have the right to review their educational records and request that those records be corrected if they contain information that is inaccurate or misleading. Typically, Kowalski said, the school district is the keeper of a child’s formal educational record, and the best place for parents to go to access information about their child.

Over the past several years, however, states across the country have been building longitudinal data systems that hold hundreds or even thousands of pieces of data on individual students—typically demographic, enrollment, course-taking, grade, test performance, and other such information. Interpretations differ over what portions of that information constitute part of a child’s legal “educational record.” The information is tracked over time, in some cases from preschool through to college and the workforce. The data are provided by districts and typically used for required federal reporting, research, and policymaking, Kowalski said.

A handful of states, including Georgia and Utah, have developed mechanisms for making at least some of the data held in their longitudinal databases accessible to parents. Kowalski praised such efforts, saying there is a real value for parents and educators in seeing children’s growth over time.

As a general rule of thumb, she said, entities collecting educational data should seek to provide value back to the people on whom data are being collected.

Most states, including Nevada, have no such systems, however. In DQC’s latest report, just 14 states were found to provide timely access to educational data for parents and teachers.

“It’s the hardest part of [our] agenda,” Kowalski said. “These data systems are pretty much still brand new. ...Parents and teachers are not a traditional audience for state educational agencies, and I think they are learning how to engage with these new stakeholders.”

Further confusing the matter, in Nevada and elsewhere, is the ways in which data-privacy concerns have become closely entangled with opposition to the common core and its related assessments.

Eppolito, for example, is the president of Stop Common Core Nevada. The group is part of a growing network of activists, educators, and parents who are fiercely opposed to the new standards, which have been adopted and are in the process of being implemented by 45 states and the District of Columbia. Many in that group are also leery of the two large, federally funded multi-state assessment consortia that will administer online exams connected to the new standards. In Nevada, that’s the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Much of the media coverage involving Eppolito has framed the situation in terms of a potential problem with the new standards and assessments.

“The statewide longitudinal data system, common core, and [Smarter Balanced] testing— they unfortunately all ended up getting tied together. They all ended up as one big mess,” Eppolito was quoted as saying in Reno Rebirth, a blog associated with the Reno Gazette-Journal.

The common core and its related assessments are not directly connected with state longitudinal data systems, but Kowalski said such concerns are understandable.

“It’s unclear who owns the data, what might be shared with the [assessment] consortia, and what the federal government’s role is,” she said. “Everybody could do a better job of clarifying what those relationships are and how that data will or will not be shared.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.