State to study student privacy policies

Posted

Wednesday, June 11
BRATTLEBORO -- During the past few years the Vermont Department of Education has collected piles of data on the state's students.

Buried within the hard drives and compact discs at the education department's office building in Montpelier are reports on the gender, family income, race, address, as well as academic standing of the students who attend the public schools.

Federal law protects the privacy of students and families and the Department of Education has policies to ensure that reports that are released do not expose personal information.

But as the data have piled up and have become more detailed and easy to access, the state board has not kept up with its policies on who should be able to look at it, who should be ultimately in charge of the decision process to release inofrmation, and at what point should certain parts of student reports be kept from the public

At the Vermont Board of Education meeting next week, three different policies will be debated to help the Department of Education more ably walk the line between privacy and the public right to know.

"In the last five years there has been an increase in the data we have been asked to collect," explained education department spokeswoman Jill Remick. "We are definitely collecting more data and a lot of it gets pretty specific. We have an internal policy but it seems like it needs to be formalized."

The No Child Left Behind act requires schools to keep records on test scores, and those scores must be broken out so schools know how boys and girls compare, how low income students are doing, and if African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics and members of every other ethnic group are measuring up.

Small rural states like Vermont are especially challenged to keep data private due to the small number of ethnic minorities in the state.

If someone gets hold of a school report, and there is only one African American in the fifth grade, for example, then personal data could be extracted.

The state board is expected to discuss the state policy at its meeting on Tuesday.

"No Child Left Behind requires us to look at different subsets in ways we haven't in the past," Vice Chairwoman Ruth Stokes said. "In small schools one student could make up a subset and we need to figure out how to provide the information needed and protect confidentiality in the environment we have."

According to the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act parents or eligible students can inspect their records, but the schools have the right to release records, without consent, to school officials and other schools as well to "organizations conducting certain studies for or on behalf of the school," and to "specified officials for audit or evaluation purposes."

Schools are also allowed, under the federal law, to "disclose, without consent, directory information such as a student's name, address, telephone number, date and place of birth, honors and awards and dates of attendance."

Officials in the education department's information technology office suppress confidential information when there are less than 11 students of any specific aggregate subset, but the policy has never been officially discussed by the state board.

According to the upcoming state board agenda, information technology officials "are concerned that the lack of a formal board approved policy may be a security risk to the department."

The board is expected to formally adopt the existing policy of suppressing information when 11 or fewer students are included in a subset.

The state board is also going to consider how the education department handles third party research requests on behalf of the education department using student data.

Under the proposed change, the department information technology team would classify data as sensitive and confidential, and a written contract would have to be signed before the release of records.

A third proposed policy spells out how organizations that contract with the education department go about obtaining student information for their work.

The state board is expected to formally vote on the three proposals at its August meeting.

The education department information technology director, Lisa Gauvin, said outgoing commissioner Richard Cate put the existing policies in place.

Now with Cate heading over to his new post at the University of Vermont, Gauvin's team wanted to make sure the safeguards were formalized so the new commissioner could not change them without board approval.

"Over time, the amount of data we collect has grown and we determined at this point that the board bless these rules," said Gauvin. "We need these statewide policies to be set. Protection of confidential information is a high priority and the public right to know is important too. It is always a balancing act between the accountability side and how we report student information."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.


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