Student data offers parents, teachers, school administrators, and policymakers a major opportunity to improve education for children. From adaptive tutoring systems that personalize the learning process to predictive models that can identify students at risk of dropping out so they can be offered support, data-driven applications promise to improve many aspects of K-12 schooling. However, states will not be able to fully enjoy these benefits if they put unnecessary controls on the collection, sharing, and use of student data. Instead, they should encourage data collection, permit public school systems to share data with third party educational app developers, and allow authorized organizations to reuse student data for a broad range of educational purposes.
Schools collect a variety of information about students, including educational information, such as grades and test scores; behavioral information, such as disciplinary records; biometric information, such as fingerprints; and other information, such as socioeconomic data and family details. Schools collect this data in order to improve student outcomes, ensure student safety, and determine how changes in education and school administration can influence other aspects of students’ lives.
Various laws and regulations control much of the collection, sharing, and use of student data. At the federal level, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prohibits some student information from being released or transferred without the student’s (or parent’s) consent. States have also enacted additional laws and regulations governing student data, particularly for data transfer from schools and districts to state authorities and other third parties. Many of these laws make it more difficult for schools and districts to collect, share, and use data, but a few have made these processes easier.
States have a variety of laws and regulations limiting student data collection. A recently passed Florida law, for example, forbids schools from collecting biometric data, including fingerprints. This will limit schools’ ability to implement student safety programs and force administrators to rely on less reliable methods for authenticating students’ identities. Schools in Florida are also prevented from collecting data about the political affiliation, voting history, and religious affiliation of students and their families. In Oklahoma, legislation creating the “Parents Bill of Rights” allows parents to opt their children out of data collection that will be used for state longitudinal research. This is a bad idea because it can skew the results of analysis in unpredictable ways if students with certain characteristics are systemically excluded from data sets. And in Georgia, the governor signed an executive order in May 2013 prohibiting the collection of student data to develop commercial products or services thereby limiting the ability of schools to partner with the private sector on educational technology initiatives.
Some states have moved to prevent public school student data from being transferred to third parties. For example, in 2013, Oklahoma signed into law the Student Data Accessibility, Transparency and Accountability Act which prohibits schools from releasing student data to any organization outside the state without written parental consent. This law will stymie schools’ efforts to work with educational technology companies in creating student learning apps and will ultimately hurt the students it purports to protect by making it more difficult for schools to deliver education enhancing technologies.
States such as California and Illinois, allow student data to be accessed under formal data sharing agreements by approved organizations, such as research groups, state agencies or educational technology companies, but include a provision that these organizations must destroy the data when it is no longer needed for its original purpose. Other states, such as Delaware, also use data sharing agreements, but do not include a data destruction provision in their laws regarding education data sharing agreements, meaning that organizations can reuse old data in subsequent analysis as long as they can come to an agreement with the school or district regarding the new use. Delaware’s approach is better since requiring approved organizations to reacquire data to which they have already been granted access is inefficient.
Finally, state laws and regulations control the use of student data. Lawmakers in some states have moved to restrict how student data can be used. For example, a proposed 2014 California bill would forbid educational companies from using or sharing personally identifiable information about K-12 students for commercial purposes. While states may want to prohibit certain commercial uses of student data, blanket restrictions unnecessarily limit legitimate uses of the data, including research purposes and targeted public awareness campaigns. Such legislation also would likely result in states having to spend more on educational technology, since companies would be prohibited from monetizing student data.
Other states promote the use of student data both by educators and third-parties. In 2010, in pursuit of funding from the federal Race to the Top program, Nevada struck down a long-standing state law that had prohibited school administrators from evaluating teachers on the basis of student achievement data. By the end of the 2014-2015 school year, half of Nevada teachers’ evaluations will be based on this data. Research has shown that teacher performance has significant impact on student achievement; evaluating teachers based on their students’ performance is a promising way to ensure schools have the best teachers. This kind of use illustrates the value of employing student data in contexts for which it was not originally collected.
Kentucky has built a user-friendly system that allows teachers and administrators to access and make better decisions based on student achievement reports. For example, administrators using the system found that students getting the same grades at different high schools had grossly different needs for remedial education in college, a finding which led to instituting a statewide standardized test to compare schools with one another. As a result of this and other education reforms, the percentage of college-going students in the state has increased, while the percentage of students needing remediation in college has decreased.
State laws and regulations have the power to help or hinder the adoption of data-driven innovations in K-12 education. While there have been a few positive developments, overall, the current patchwork of state laws imposes substantial limitations on student data. Importantly, unless states adopt policies to foster data sharing between schools and third-parties, the private sector will face an uphill battle to bring data analytics to the education sector. In addition, unless states harmonize their policies, the complexity of complying with different state requirements will impede the development of a robust national market for data-driven educational technology and limit the ability of researchers to compare the performance of education policies in different states.
Many states are actively considering changes to their laws governing student data. This year alone, 32 states have already proposed 83 bills to address student data issues. As states consider these revisions, it is imperative that they understand that the use of “big data” offers enormous opportunities to improve educational outcomes, but these opportunities will not be realized if policymakers erect legal barriers preventing the collection, sharing, and use of student data.
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