Some school districts cite privacy concerns over state’s request for student data - The Buffalo News

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Some school districts cite privacy concerns over state’s request for student data

Attendance. Suspensions. State test scores. Parent phone numbers. And whether a child is disabled.

New York State wants school districts to submit an array of educational and personal information on every public school student to a nonprofit education group funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. That information would then be streamlined, repackaged and made available to educators with the click of a button on a computer or iPad.

Federal Race to the Top grant money for school districts is tied to participation.

The creators say their program will give teachers and administrators valuable information to help them tailor everything from lessons to seating charts.

But some administrators are nervous about how this information will be used and whether private contractors can keep it safe.

Two local superintendents are so worried they say they will not sign off on using the new online system, even if it means giving up federal education grant money.

“In this type of situation, you err on the side of confidentiality of students, parents and families,” Williamsville Superintendent Scott G. Martzloff said. “To me, that’s sacrosanct.”

Martzloff and West Seneca Superintendent Mark J. Crawford are among school leaders across the state who did not follow a directive from the state Department of Education to sign up for a new “data dashboard” to manage individual student profiles in the state’s new EngageNY Portal.

The concerns include the security of the private student data, the cost of the new online services once federal grant money runs out and how long information such as a suspension or skipped class should follow a child.

The state has collected data on individual students for years, but now the involvement of a nonprofit organization, inBloom, has sparked fears about the loss of local control over the data. The organization received startup funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to standardize information about students across the country.

“I feel that there’s a matter of trust that parents have for me in this West Seneca community to do the right thing on behalf of their children,” Crawford said. “And since I don’t have all the answers to all the questions that I’ve asked, I’m not comfortable signing off on this.”

The state Department of Education proposed the creation of a new statewide data system as part of its application for the federal Race to the Top education program four years ago. The idea behind the EngageNY Portal is to provide a unified way for teachers and administrators to access and share student data across the state and to allow parents to access their children’s information.

Currently, districts across the state use a variety of programs and Web portals to manage student information. These systems, state leaders say, have varying levels of security and often are not compatible with each other.

The new data system will allow teachers and administrators to access everything from state test scores to the dates a student missed a class through a Web-based portal. It also will allow teachers and administrators to compare progress in their classrooms with similar classes across the state.

“If you are an administrator in a school district, you don’t have to deal with having 17 different passwords and 17 different systems that you have to go through,” Ira Schwartz, assistant commissioner of accountability, said during a recent State Senate education hearing led by State Sen. John J. Flanagan. “It is simply a way of collecting this information and using it with more efficiency, not in any way to make it available to others that are not able to access it now.”

The data, state officials said, cannot be sold or used by private vendors for anything beyond their state contracts, and must comply with federal standards about how private student information is used. They also point to the use of computer firewalls and encryption to keep the data safe.

“That double level of protection is very unusual to find in school district-level services,” said Ken Wagner, associate commissioner of curriculum, assessment and educational technology.

Local districts that have opted not to use the state’s system worry about the sheer scope of the information that would be provided to inBloom. Districts will be required to provide a long list of student data – from the number of times a child is suspended to whether the child has a disability – and can choose to add more information to the system to be used at the local level.

Martzloff, of Williamsville, said he did not feel comfortable that the state answered all the questions about how the information will be safeguarded and how it could be used in the future. Despite assurances the data will be protected and that vendors will be penalized if the information is breached, Martzloff noted that even large Silicon Valley companies have seen their computers hacked. “How long does this data follow you around?” Martzloff asked. “Who’s going to be using it and for what other purposes?”

Williamsville already uses a local Web portal that allows parents and teachers to track student information, and Martzloff sees the new “data dashboards” as redundant.

The use of student data is not new. Where student records were once warehoused in dusty school basements, schools during the last decade have been required to provide an increasing amount of digital information to the state for various reasons, including measuring the progress of schools. Last year, the state began requiring schools to provide some details about student attendance.

Among the new items this year are the number of times a student has been suspended, which Wagner said can be used as an early warning sign that a student might drop out, and parent contact information. Wagner said the parent information would be used to verify the identity of a parent. The details of a student suspension or disability are not required to be submitted.

The rest of the data, Wagner said, has been collected and stored by the state for years. “With very few exceptions, we’ve been collecting those things for, in some cases 10 years, and in some cases at least more than one year,” Wagner said. But what worries some educators is the idea that inBloom, the nonprofit organization the state has partnered with to process the data, seeks to work with schools across the nation, creating what some view as the potential for a national data warehouse of student information.

“Many of the districts thought the trust of our parents and our students is being violated because, while we turned it over to the state, it’s moving beyond them to someone else and we have not disclosed that to anyone,” said Mark Beehler, a West Seneca School District administrator who, as chief information officer, handles the district’s student data. “And really, we’re just sort of finding this out for ourselves.”

State officials say New York looks to inBloom to process the data in a standard way so that different vendors can build programs that use the information for school districts. That work, the state and inBloom say, should make it cheaper for districts to use data services and applications.

“Nobody at all has permission to merge data across states,” Wagner said. “So there is no national database that is made available or allowable by participation in inBloom.”

School districts that opt not to select a “data dashboard” to use with the state’s new EngageNY Portal will forfeit their remaining federal Race to the Top grant money, Wagner said. But that won’t keep their student data out of the new state system.

“One recourse that people are saying is, ‘OK, then let us at least opt out of Race to the Top,’ ” Wagner said. “That is, of course, an option, but unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to answer their particular question, which is, does that mean my data won’t travel? The answer to that is, yes, the data will still travel.”


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