Tracking Kids: School Data a Double-Edged Sword

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DENVER - Once upon a time, schools used folders and files to track students' progress. Today, teachers like Sarah Klieforth use their laptops to collect information throughout the day.

The fifth grade literacy teacher in Denver says she uses the data to tailor her instruction to individual student needs.

"What one kid needs is very different than what another kid needs," she explained.

Often, she gives individualized assignments based on what students have mastered and where they're struggling.

The problem for school districts across the country right now -- What happens to the data after it's collected?

Tracking Kids

In December, the Fordham Law School's Center on Law and Information Policy (CLIP) released a study showing that 95 percent of districts use a so-called computer cloud service or third party vendor to store all kinds of student information.

The study also showed that policies for protecting the data are generally weak and non-transparent.

For instance, only 25 percent of schools tell parents where their kids' information is stored. Also, only 7 percent of the contracts used with these vendors restrict the sale or marketing of student information. Many contracts allow vendors to keep student data forever.

"Essentially every school district in the country is collecting data, but when you ask school officials about what they're doing they're often confused," Fordham researcher Joel Reidenberg told CBN News.

That confusion has led many states to re-examine privacy policies around their growing collections of student data. In Colorado, concerns over privacy led the state to completely sever its ties with its student data collection program.

CBN News spoke with Sunny Flynn and Rachael Stickland, two concerned parents in the Jefferson County School District.

"I think we have, generally, not a lot of understanding about what level of data is collected on our kids in schools, what protections are offered," Flynn said.

A year ago, she and Stickland began investigating the district's plan to use a cloud service known as inBloom.

At first it sounded good. Then they began to realize the amount of data that inBloom intended to collect.

"When you really begin to study the inBloom infrastructure, the theory is that they can track our children all the way down to the keystroke level," Flynn, a hi-tech consultant, said. "And that's where I start to get very alarmed."

Marketing 'Data Points'

While their district didn't plan to use inBloom to that degree, Flynn and Stickland realized that it could easily happen where the district not only tracked kids' answers on the computer but the way they thought to arrive at their answers.

They also discovered that eight other states planned to use inBloom.

InBloom is just one service in a huge $8 billion education technology market. Much of that market right now is focusing on collecting what are known as "data points" on kids.

The hope is that schools can collect lots of data that vendors will help them organize. The resulting collection would theoretically help teachers customize lessons and help schools, districts, and state education departments assess educational practices.

The potential is seemingly endless. Here's what education technology specialist Jose Ferriera told educators at a recent White House conference about Knewton, his technology start-up.

"Knewton can figure out things like you learn math best in the morning between 8:40 and 9:13 a.m. You learn science best in 42-minute bite sizes," he explained.

InBloom also has attracted school districts by providing a convenient way to access student information from different sources. Plus, inBloom helped them attract federal funding, which rewards districts that set up systems to track students from pre-school to post-college.

Privacy Issues

Looking back, however, state education officials like Dr. Elliot Asp, special assistant to Colorado's Commissioner of Education, say they didn't think carefully enough about privacy issues before signing on.

"It's almost too much of a good thing," Asp told CBN News. "Gosh, we can collect this data and give it to teachers to do this."

Today, Colorado and the other states that signed on with inBloom have ended their contracts, recently leading the start-up to close shop.

"Building public acceptance for the solution will require more time and resources than anyone could have anticipated," inBloom Chief Executive Officer Iwan Streichenberger acknowledged.

"The unavailability of this technology is a real missed opportunity for teachers and school districts seeking to improve student learning," he lamented.

Broad Scope of Information

Even with the demise of inBloom, the challenge of how to store and protect student data continues. Across the country, many state education departments are studying the issue in an effort to help their districts strategize and problem solve.

"The states that we're in touch with are saying we need to be very careful about this, about the language we use, about the kind of data we're collecting. We need to be much more transparent," Asp said.

Many states are also struggling to understand recent changes in the federal student privacy law known as FERPA.

"These recent FERPA regulations allow schools to collect more information and also to disclose additional information," Khaliah Barnes, director of the Student Privacy Project at the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, explained.

The scope of information that schools can collect is also much broader.

"We're talking not just GPAs and test scores," Barnes said. "We're talking about Social Security numbers. We're talking about teen pregnancy information, about mental health information, socio-economic status, issues like that."

Hitting Pause

For Stickland, Flynn and other parents across the country, it's time to hit pause on this technology wave before it goes too far.

"I think that the technology has simply gotten ahead of the leadership," Flynn said. "And I think it's time that everyone slow down and really understand what we're getting ourselves into."

Going forward, tough questions remain like how can parents access this data on their children? Can they opt out? How long is the data kept and who decides what will be deleted?

"Once you let the information out you can never get it back," Stickland told CBN News. "So, really, the goal for parents at this point is to minimize the amount of data that is collected on our children and then whatever is collected to protect it with the maximum protections."

For Stickland, Flynn, and other tech-savvy parents, student data represents a double-edged sword. It can help teachers like Klieforth individualize students' education.

They worry, however, that personal pieces of information collected on their kids could someday be used against them.

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Heather Sells

Heather Sells

CBN News Reporter

Heather Sells covers a variety of issues for CBN News ranging from immigration and religious liberty to human trafficking, privacy issues and food.

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