Student privacy issue arises with national record database

Student privacy is at stake, say parents who are worried about a new database that can store information like test scores and discipline records.

By , Reuters

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    Student information like test scores and teacher assessments could be stored in a new database funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Here, teacher Melodie Koss (l.) instructs one of her students.
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A $100 million database set up to store extensive records on millions of public school students has stumbled badly since its launch this spring, with officials in several states backing away from the project amid protests from irate parents.

The database, funded mostly by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is intended to track students from kindergarten through high school by storing myriad data points: test scores, learning disabilities, discipline records - even teacher assessments of a child's character. The idea is that consolidated records make it easier for teachers to use software that mines data to identify academic weaknesses. Games, videos or lesson plans would then be precisely targeted to engage specific children or promote specific skills.

The system is set up to identify millions of children by name, race, economic status and other metrics and is constructed in a way that makes it easy for school districts to share some or all of that information with private companies developing education software.

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The nonprofit organization that runs the database, inBloom Inc, introduced the project in March with a presentation at an education technology conference, complete with a list of nine states that it said were committed "partners."

Parents and civil liberties groups concerned about potential privacy breaches quickly began to sound the alarm and rallied opposition in social media.

In response to an outcry in his state, Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White withdrew student data from inBloom in April. He's planning to hold public hearings on data storage and security this summer but said in an interview that he is no longer sure there's a need for inBloom.

Kentucky, Georgia and Delaware – all initially listed as partners on the inBloom website – told Reuters that they never made a commitment and have no intention of participating. Georgia specifically asked for its name to be removed.

Officials in two other states on the list, Massachusetts and North Carolina, said they are still evaluating the project and may never upload student data.

"The single biggest issue is, Can we satisfy not only ourselves but everyone that the data is as secure stored there as it would be anywhere?" said Jeff Wulfson, deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education. "From our perspective, this is still in the research and development phase."

InBloom spokesman Adam Gaber said the initial list of partner states was "confusing" and has been corrected on the website. Massachusetts and North Carolina "were more committed originally" but are still considered partners because they are discussing possible participation, he said.

That leaves just New York, Illinois and Colorado as active participants.

Former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise, who sits on the inBloom board of directors, said he was confident the project was still viable and valuable.

School districts already store student data and often share it with private vendors hired for jobs such as tracking reading scores. InBloom simply consolidates in one secure, cloud-hosted database the reams of student information now scattered among an array of computer servers, teacher grade books and file cabinets, Wise said. The districts retain complete control over which data to store in inBloom and whether to let third-party vendors use it.

The Gates Foundation is also confident about inBloom's future, saying early adopters will provide a "blueprint for the future" and "assuage the concerns that have been raised."

InBloom is now free but will start charging participating states or school districts annual fees of $2 to $5 per student in 2015, bringing in millions of dollars that officials at the nonprofit say will cover expenses for developing and maintaining the database.

New York plans to upload data on nearly all its 2.6 million students statewide. Illinois is testing inBloom in two districts and plans to expand to 35 districts serving half a million students, officials said.

Colorado's test district, suburban Jefferson County, has commissioned software that draws on the database to create digital "dashboards" that let teachers identify at a glance precisely which students are having trouble with which skills. InBloom also centralizes all the computer apps teachers normally use with their students, so they no longer have to log in to different screens for each program.

When teachers got a sneak peek, "by far the most common question was, 'Could we get this in my classroom tomorrow?'" said Greg Mortimer, the chief information officer for the 85,000-student district. He added that the project should save the district money because software developers will be able to hook their programs cleanly into the inBloom infrastructure. The way things now stand, he said, the district has to spend heavily to integrate each app into the county's cumbersome and overlapping data systems.

Mortimer said he has no doubt privacy would be protected: "InBloom has the resources to secure this data better than any single school district in the country."

Despite such an endorsement, inBloom is continuing to lose momentum.

An early backer of inBloom, the Council of Chief State School Officers, is now big on only a second phase of the project, which involves creating an online library of lesson plans, quiz questions and other teaching resources.

The library, which won't require student data, is "the valuable part of this project," said Chris Minnich, executive director of the council, which represents state superintendents of education. On the database itself, Minnich noted that the council urges each state to analyze the costs and benefits of participating.

Some states had been interested in accessing inBloom's teaching resources without participating in the database, but ended up banding together to create their own online library. Bob Swiggum, the chief information officer for the Georgia Department of Education, said he's glad his state went that route. National opposition to the database has been so intense, he said, "I don't know how inBloom will survive."

Officials at inBloom say they have done a poor job articulating the need for the database and vow to do better. Yet they have not addressed all of the concerns raised by parents.

The nonprofit recently announced that it would no longer let school districts use student social security numbers to label individual files in the database. Instead, districts must assign each student a random numerical ID. But spokesman Adam Gaber refused to say whether social security numbers might be included elsewhere – not as a label but as a basic data point, along with ethnicity, address, parents' names and other personal information routinely collected by public schools.

That is unlikely to assuage Karen Sprowal, the mother of a 10-year-old in a New York City public school. She's terrified to think that records of her son's medical treatments will be stored on the cloud indefinitely, along with so many other intimate details, she said. "It feels like such a violation."

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