Canadian Security Magazine

NY only state still fully on board with school data cloud; parents concerned about privacy

By Karen Matthews for The Associated Press   

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After months of debate about the risks of storing student data in the cloud, New York is pressing ahead with a plan to create a statewide database for every public school student's grades, tests scores and attendance records - a tech startup proposal that drew interest from several other states that have now reconsidered.

Concerns from parents about who will have access to the information, how long it will be held and whether it will be used for marketing purposes have stalled the momentum of a startup that promised to bring efficiency and cost savings to record-keeping that is still largely handled district by district across the country.

“The fear that everyone has is that five years later, you’re going for a job, and Big Brother is going to find out that when you were in junior high school, you did something stupid,” said New York State Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Catherine Nolan, a Queens Democrat who has a son in public high school.

Founded in February with $100 million in grant money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corp., Atlanta-based data-storage company inBloom drew early interest from several states.

But within months, Louisiana, Kentucky, Georgia and Delaware pulled back. Massachusetts is using inBloom services in one pilot district but has made no commitment to further involvement. The school board in the Jefferson County, Colo., district in suburban Denver cancelled inBloom this month amid parent opposition.

Illinois is participating, but that state’s Board of Education said individual districts don’t have to send their data if they don’t want to.

The New York State Education Department, however, is going forward with plans requiring districts to send student information with names to inBloom sometime after Jan. 1.

The data will be accessible by educators and parents through a portal. For New York students, the data will include grades, standardized test scores and any medical diagnosis that requires special-education services. Suspensions will be logged as part of a student’s attendance record, but the reason for a suspension won’t be.

A group of New York City parents sued this month to block the release of student information to inBloom, and critics still hope to persuade state officials to step back from the data plan.

Lawmakers attending a hearing in Albany this past week demanded to know why New York was the only state that’s still all-in with inBloom, with no “opt-out” provision for families or for districts. State Education Commissioner John King said that he shared their concerns about security but that collecting student data “is necessary for the good functioning of districts, schools and states.”

Karen Sprowal, of New York City, held up a photo of her fifth-grade son, who has special needs, and said she fears that the release of his records could haunt him in the future.

“His school records essentially are his medical records,” Sprowal said. “I decide what gets released to whom.”

In addition to security concerns, debate has focused on fears that companies will use the data to sell educational products.

“It’s not an educational plan. It’s a marketing plan,” said Lisa Rudley, a mother of three from Ossining, N.Y., who testified at the assembly hearing.

InBloom spokesman Adam Gaber said student data privacy and security has been a top priority for the non-profit since its inception.

And as for fears that inBloom would sell the information to marketers, Gaber said: “By law, inBloom cannot sell nor even share any state/district customer data.”

A spokesman for the state Education Department said New York cannot sell the data either.

Aimee Guidera, executive director of the Data Quality Campaign, a Washington-based organization that advocates boosting the use of student data, said parent concerns are legitimate.

“These are our kids. Of course we should be thinking about it,” Guidera said.

She said school districts and states need to explain to parents why collecting data is necessary to prepare students for “the knowledge economy” – and they need to spell out the penalties associated with data breaches.

“We haven’t all of us done a good enough job of communicating about the role of data and how it’s going to be used – and also why it matters.”

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