Senator Raises Questions About Protecting Student Data

Fordham Law in The New York Times , October 22, 2013

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A lawmaker who is a staunch advocate of children’s privacy is investigating whether the data collection and analysis practices of the growing education technology industry, a market estimated at $8 billion, are outstripping federal rules governing the sharing of students’ personal information.

On Tuesday, Senator Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, sent a letter to Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, about how K-12 schools are outsourcing management and assessment of student data, including intimate details like disabilities, to technology vendors. The letter cited an article in The New York Times this month about concerns over the proliferation of student data to companies.

“By collecting detailed personal information about students’ test results and learning abilities, educators may find better ways to educate their students,” Senator Markey wrote in the letter. “However, putting the sensitive information of students in private hands raises a number of important questions about the privacy rights of parents and their children.”

School districts nationwide are increasingly using digital technologies that collect and analyze academic and other details about students in an effort to tailor lessons to the individual child. But privacy law experts say that many schools are employing student assessment software and other services without sufficiently restricting the use of children’s personal data by vendors. Researchers at Fordham University School of Law in New York, for example, recently found that certain school districts have signed contracts without clauses to protect information like children’s contact details, the locations where they wait for school buses every morning, or the food items they buy in school cafeterias.

In his letter, Senator Markey asked Mr. Duncan to explain whether the Department of Education had assessed the types of student information schools share with private companies; whether the department had issued federal standards or guidelines that outline the steps schools should take to protect student data stored and used by private companies; what kinds of security measures the department requires companies to put in place to safeguard student data; and whether federal administrators believe that parents, not schools, should have the right to control information about their children even if it is housed by private companies.

“Sensitive information such as students’ behavior and participation patterns also may be included in files outsourced to third-party data firms and potentially distributed more widely to additional companies without parental consent,” Senator Markey wrote. “Such loss of parental control over their child’s educational records and performance information could have longstanding consequences for the future prospects of students.”