Privacy of kids’ records debated

Joel Reidenberg in NewsOK, April 18, 2010

Media Source

It’s not just grades and test scores anymore. It’s educational data.

And it comes in many varieties to help educators, students and parents measure academic growth and achievement in the nation’s schools.

At a House of Representatives hearing last week, the superintendent of the Western Heights School District in Oklahoma City gave a committee an online look at a student’s current schedule, grades and attendance record for the past three years.

A teacher from Ohio showed how two teachers in the same school were having vastly different results among different types of students. And a Colorado education official demonstrated how parents and others can compare achievements among schools.

Educators say more and better data leads to better instruction.

"I fundamentally believe we need to retool schools to deliver data in near real time,” Joe Kitchens, Western Heights superintendent, told the House Education and Labor Committee.

But a law professor warned the committee that much of the data being collected was unnecessary and intrusive and raised privacy concerns. Some of the data collection, he said, may even violate a federal law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The push for data collection was part of the No Child Left Behind Act and supported last year in the stimulus bill, which included $250 million to help states develop systems that track students through all grades.

Congressional committees are now laying the groundwork for rewriting federal education policy for the nation’s elementary and secondary schools.

Rep. George Miller, chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, said there has to be a "tremendous focus on data” in the new law.

"Without data, schools are operating in the dark,” he said. "Simply put, data systems work.”

Miller, D-Calif., mentioned Kitchens’ work in identifying the academic problems of students who transfer to different schools.

Kitchens brought in a statistical expert to analyze data in the Western Heights district. There were some obvious results: Kids who miss class and get in trouble don’t do as well. But Kitchens also learned that many kids who had moved from another school weren’t succeeding.

The "mobility” rate among U.S. students is much higher than in the past, Kitchens said, and electronic records need to move with the children quickly to help teachers assess and help them.

"We have people on the move, and we have to move data with children so we can make decisions about their educational lives,” Kitchens told the House committee.

Joel R. Reidenberg, a law professor at Fordham University and a former local school board member in New Jersey, isn’t as enthusiastic as educators about the move to collect more data about students.

After being alarmed at the kinds of information being collected by the state of New Jersey, Reidenberg helped direct a national study on what kind of information states were "warehousing” on kids.

He told the panel that many states were collecting far more information than was mandated by the No Child Left Behind law.

Nearly a third were collecting Social Security numbers; 22 percent were recording student pregnancies, and some were even tracking the birth weight of the babies; some were collecting medical test results and mental health records; and some were tracking juvenile criminal records, even though they aren’t public and are often expunged.

States aren’t open in telling the public what kind of information they’re gathering about students, Reidenberg said, meaning they’ve created "secret surveillance systems of children.”

"It is inevitable that children’s information will be compromised,” the Fordham University professor said, noting personal information of 18,000 students and 6,000 parents in Tennessee was released on the Internet from a state data warehouse program last year.

Miller, the chairman of the committee, agreed that privacy protections were essential, and the top Republican on the panel said he has already written a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan about his concerns.

"The stimulus significantly expanded the scope of federal involvement in student data, the consequences of which are only just beginning to emerge,” Rep. John Kline said.

Kline, R-Minn., said the long-term goal of the federal program was to create systems that will "track students from almost literally the cradle to their careers.”

Lawmakers "must ensure the data collected is narrow in scope and tightly controlled, with its use carefully monitored,” Kline said.