Is your child’s personal data safe at school?

BY   February 20, 2015 at 1:33 PM EDT
As student data moves from filing cabinets and local servers to the cloud, what kind of data has become vulnerable? Photo by Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker

As student data moves from filing cabinets and local servers to the cloud, what kind of data has become vulnerable? Photo by Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker

Earlier this month, students and parents in Washington, D.C. and Miami learned that massive amounts of student information gathered by schools had been compromised or stolen.

In Miami, a man was arrested with students’ names, social security numbers and birthdays — more than enough personal information to steal their identities. Parents in D.C. learned that information on student enrollment in special education services — including names and passwords for online mailboxes — has for years been easily accessible to anyone online, due to a security breach.

With nearly 100,000 public schools online, or “connected,” personal student information collected by schools has moved from filing cabinets and local servers to the cloud.

Meanwhile, the federal law that gives special protections to student information, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, was passed in 1974 and is now grossly outdated. Updating it for the 21st Century was one of the goals President Obama laid out in his State of the Union address last month.

Lawmakers are expected to introduce legislation to achieve Mr. Obama’s goal of blocking companies that store and collect student data from using it for anything other than educational purposes.

Last week, possible revisions to the law were debated in a Congressional hearing. Joel Reidenberg, a Fordham University law professor who focuses on privacy and the internet, told legislators that student data is being stored indefinitely, and contracts between school districts and companies are often weak, with few specifics on privacy and security measures.

So what exactly is at stake? What information do schools, teachers and state and local governments collect and store about students? Below is an outline of the kind of data being collected on students and a look at who has access.

School offices collect information like students' addresses, social security numbers and  birthdays. More and more of that information is moving into online storage along with records like class schedules, attendance and grades. Photo: Eric E. Castro.

School offices collect information like students’ addresses, social security numbers and birthdays. More and more of that information is moving into online storage along with records like class schedules, attendance and grades. Photo by Eric E. Castro via Flickr.

Data from the school office

  • Name
  • Address
  • Phone number
  • Birthdate
  • Social security number
  • Family income-eligibility for free or reduced price lunch
  • Attendance
  • Class schedule
  • Special education or gifted program enrollment
  • End-of-term and end-of-year grades
  • Some district are using biometric identifiers, like student palm scans to speed up lunch lines.
  • Where it goes, and who can see it

    School administrators, school district staff and teachers can access this type of information. In districts using technology known as student dashboards, teachers, administrators, and sometimes parents, can log in and see information about a student — like attendance, grades, class schedule and progress toward graduation — all in one place.

    Some of this information is reported to states and the federal government, which use it to track students who move between districts, fund school districts and measure how they serve different groups of students. Aggregated data about student demographics, enrollment and how groups of students perform on tests are published publicly.

    But under FERPA, a school or school district can share relevant student information with outside organizations that are contracted to provide student services. That kind of access is also granted to companies that provide online platforms for storing student data, according to Kaliah Barnes, director of the student privacy project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

    “In the current environment,” she said last fall, “the majority of [student information] is going straight to some online platform, and that’s where you lose the federal privacy protections.”

    In classrooms across the country, students work on laptops and other devices connected to the internet. Schools are figuring out how to use the information students create to improve education while protecting kids' privacy. Photo: Jeff Peterson.

    In classrooms across the country, students work on laptops and other devices connected to the internet. Schools are figuring out how to use the information students create to improve education while protecting kids’ privacy. Photo by Jeff Peterson via Flickr.

    Data from the classroom

  • Class participation
  • Student behavior
  • Assignment and in-class test and quiz grades
  • Student emails and passwords for online learning platforms
  • Performance on online lessons
  • Internet browsing history on school computers, laptops and tablets
  • Where it goes, and who can see it

    Information like this could become part of a student’s profile on an academic dashboard, or it could just be written down in a teacher’s grading book.

    If a school or teacher is using an online tool to store student information, then the teacher and some school administrators can access this information along with the company that provides the online platform. How exactly companies use that data is spelled out in the terms of service agreed to by a teacher, administrator or school district. That’s why Paige Kowalski, vice president of policy and advocacy at Data Quality Campaign, says it is important for districts to have explicit policies outlining what kind of uses of student data they will allow for vendors. The organization outlines questions parents should be asking school and district leaders about how their child’s data is used.

    Student test scores  are just one component of the data school districts collect and report to states and the federal governments. Photo: timlewisnm.

    Student test scores are just one component of the data school districts collect and report to states and the federal governments. Photo by timlewisnm via Flickr..

    Data from tests

  • Test scores
  • Specific questions answered correctly and incorrectly
  • Some student demographic information
  • Where it goes, and who can see it

    Teachers, parents and school administrators can see how each student performed on an exam and can often find out which questions or types of questions a student missed. Teachers can use this information to focus their teaching around areas where students are struggling. Scores are also reported to the state and federal governments. Average scores at the district, school levels for all students, and economic, racial and special education subgroups are reported publicly.

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