Mass Collection Of Student Data Raises Privacy Concerns

States are centralizing record-keeping and tracking student progress, while online educational software sheds light on how students learn. But many worry about how this information could be misused.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. In All Tech Considered today, big data and student privacy. In our digitized age, all kinds of student information is now kept online - homework, classroom records. It can be incredibly detailed, including everything from the amount of time a student took to work out a math problem to the reasons he or she was suspended or dropped out of high school. For educators, all that data offers new opportunities to analyze what's working in education and what's not. For many parents and some legislators, the mass collection of data also raises serious privacy issues for children. We're going to get two angles on this emerging issue now. First, an overview from NPR education team blogger Anya Kamenetz, who's been writing about this. Anya, hi.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Melissa.

BLOCK: And let's talk first about what's happening at the state level. Why don't you talk a bit about what's being gathered exactly and how it's being gathered.

KAMENETZ: So since the middle of the last decade, the federal government's been funding and encouraging states to create these statewide longitudinal data systems. And what they do is they pretty much roll up school records into one single system that coordinates. And in a few states - in many states - it actually is collecting data on students all the way from pre-K all the way into the workforce. And that includes how they do in school and college, as well. Every single state has a statewide longitudinal data system, at this point. And they collect all kinds of information. We're talking about, you know, basic demographics, poverty, ethnicity, disability, mental health. And if they leave school, it notes, you know, was it an incarceration, was it a pregnancy that caused them to leave school. So a lot of this information is extremely sensitive and there is a lot of concerns if it were exposed.

BLOCK: But it is being encouraged. All this data collection is being encouraged by the federal government with grants. What's the argument for how this data could help improve education?

KAMENETZ: Well, there's a lot of excitement about the use of big data in education, as in many other sectors. And a great example of this is, in 2013, New York City learned, with the help of student data tracking, that almost four out of five public high school graduates were needing remediation when they got to community college. And so that kind of insight really helps a whole school system act to work for the success of students.

BLOCK: But at the same time, we mentioned privacy concerns. What are the fears about how this data could be misused?

KAMENETZ: Well, obviously there's concerns about data breaches - things being accidentally exposed or stolen or misused for advertising purposes. But then, I think there's a bigger picture of fear, which is when you have states collecting this information in such detail on very young students, is there sort of a right to be forgotten? You know, what's going to happen to this data and is it going to be used merely only to help individual students? Or is there anyway or any danger that would be used against individual students?

BLOCK: Well, what laws are there in place that would protect students and how effective are those laws?

KAMENETZ: The problem is that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act was passed all the way back in 1974. And it has a lot of loopholes. So this past month, a working group on big data and privacy was appointed by President Obama. And they advocated updating the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights and passed national legislation to restrict data breaches and to promote best practices around encryption of data. There's been similar legislation proposed in California, as well.

BLOCK: So if privacy standards were to be toughened, could that happen? I mean, could student data really be protected?

KAMENETZ: Well, that's a very good question, Melissa. I mean, you know, we are living in a world of increased data collection. And your policies are only as good as your practices. So, you know, you could have the best encryption rules in the world and then some district administrator could leave a flash drive in their car and data is exposed on tens of thousands of students. That's something that's happened at the higher ed. level. So, really, this is a dance between regulation and, actually, individual behavior.

BLOCK: Anya, thanks so much.

KAMENETZ: Thank you.

BLOCK: Anya Kamenetz is NPR's lead education blogger. You can read more of her reporting at NPR.org/ed.

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