Education Program's Data Collection On Kids Angers Critics

With summer vacation now in full swing, so too is a debate over privacy and education policy. With most states now rolling out new, national Common Core standards for students K-12, conservative critics are raising concerns about privacy and whether these new standards will lead to increased collection of student data.

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The federal government has taken a beating recently for sticking its nose where many Americans believe it doesn't belong. We've heard that the NSA collects the call logs of millions of Americans and that it's been pushing the boundaries of privacy online. We can add another complaint to the list: that the government is learning far too much about your kids by collecting student data. NPR's Cory Turner looked into that charge.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: This story begins at the end of a conversation I had recently with Michigan State Representative Tom McMillin.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE TOM MCMILLIN: The biggest thing you didn't bring up is the database, especially after the NSA and all the things going on.

TURNER: I had called McMillin to talk about his opposition to the Common Core standards - these are new national standards for students kindergarten through 12th grade - that replace state standards in math and English language arts. The Core have been adopted in most states, and McMillin has fought hard against them. But I hadn't asked about one of his biggest concerns.

MCMILLIN: Data mining, privacy, databases that you are following and tracking every child - I mean, it just falls along this line of central planners. They think that the more data and the more privacy that they're able to delve into, the more they'll be able to figure out what to do for each child.

TURNER: And McMillin isn't alone. Here's talk show host Glenn Beck.

GLENN BECK: Common Core, it calls for massive amounts of personal data on students, including health care histories, income information, religious affiliation, blood types, what - how are your parents voting.

TURNER: To some critics, the Core and data are both four-letter words and together a dangerous step toward an Orwellian nanny state. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is flabbergasted by this argument and fired back in a recent speech.

SECRETARY ARNE DUNCAN: They say that the Common Core calls for the federal collection of student data. For the record, it doesn't. We're not allowed to do that, and it won't.

TURNER: I have the standards right here. A lot of pages and not a word that I could find about student data. So I pushed back on Representative McMillin of Michigan, show me the connection between the Core and data mining.

MCMILLIN: Our Smarter Balanced contract requires that we give that data up individually, per child, for research purposes.

TURNER: When Michigan adopted the Common Core, it joined this thing called Smarter Balanced. Not the margarine, it's a consortium of states that have all signed on to the Core. The purpose is to make sure they're applying the standards uniformly and to figure out how to test students fairly.

To do that, McMillin is right, Smarter Balanced wants data. But it's limited to broad categories: sex, age, race and ethnicity, whether or not a student qualifies for a free or reduced price lunch.

JOE WILLHOFT: The student's name and any identifying information about the student would be removed from the data.

TURNER: That's Joe Willhoft, the executive director of Smarter Balanced. He says his consortium is only allowed to use the data in blind clusters: no names, no Social Security numbers. So what about the Common Core forcing schools to ask students about blood type or how their parents vote? Well, if that's happening somewhere in America, it has nothing to do with the Common Core or even with common practice.

DR. HENRY JOHNSON: I've been an educator for 35 years now and a principal for 17 years, and we have never at the school level had to report that kind of data.

TURNER: Henry Johnson is an assistant state superintendent for Maryland's schools. Johnson and lots of other education experts say this debate about data and the Common Core obscures an important fact, that the collection of basic student information has been happening in most states for years, things like grades, attendance and disability. And that data serves an important purpose, says Ken Wagner, an associate commissioner for the New York State Department of Education.

KEN WAGNER: Teachers are best prepared to meet the individual learning needs of their students when they can see their - the history of their educational records.

TURNER: Wagner says keeping track of kids year to year, classroom to classroom helps educators understand the needs of students. And it helps states see what their schools are doing well and not so well. So I took all of this back to Michigan State Representative Tom McMillin, himself a parent. He was unconvinced.

MCMILLIN: Trust but verify is not allowed in these databases and these arrangements. It's trust and trust. And we've seen with the NSA and IRS that we cannot.

TURNER: And so to some, the idea of collecting student data is Orwellian, while to others what's Orwellian is a school system not doing all it can to help its students succeed. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.

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