Student Privacy Laws Need Strengthening

Heather Kays Research Fellow, Heartland Institute
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If there ever was an issue to unite all parents, teachers, and any educational stakeholder—which ultimately includes all of us—it should be student privacy. Yet, lawmakers on both the national and state levels have failed to develop meaningful legislation to protect student data and parents’ rights.

The gutting of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act by both the Bush and Obama administrations has left children and parents in a vulnerable position. As a result, some organizations and individuals are making it their mission to raise student privacy issues and push governments to protect sensitive information about children.

The most recent skirmish was over the Pearson testing company monitoring social media posts regarding Common Core-aligned PARCC testing in New Jersey. Pearson contacted the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) over a Twitter post the company found objectionable. NJDOE then contacted the school district of the student who posted the tweet, and the student removed the post. Parents were understandably furious.

“This issue is both a free speech and a privacy issue,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters and co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy. “Pearson has good reason to suppress any discussion of its exams, which have been shown to be very low quality in the past.”

“Parents are upset across the spectrum,” said Julia Rubin, a volunteer for Save Our Schools NJ. “Nobody knew what was going on. Not just that they were monitoring. I think it’s the idea that they are monitoring in coordination with the NJDOE. NJDOE then went to the district.”

Rubin says students were not told they couldn’t talk about the testing at all; they had only been told they couldn’t take photos of the tests.

“I put a lot of the blame on the NJDOE,” said Rubin. “This type of behavior may lead to an environment where students are afraid to talk about the standardized tests at all.

“You get to a point where students don’t know what is and is not allowed, which means you might not say anything,” Rubin said. “That definitely infringes on the free-speech rights of these students.”

Haimson and Rubin both question how realistic and plausible it is to keep students as young as eight from speaking about testing that takes place over the course of a month. Many parents and activists say they feel students should be able to speak about the tests, including talking about questions and content after the taking the tests, unless the students are cheating.

“[Pearson representatives] provided staggering information about the personally identifiable information that districts upload to the Pearson testing system, as well as ‘device and response’ information they gather during test administration,” said Rachael Stickland, co-chair of Parent Coalition for Student Privacy.

According to Stickland, among the information collected during PARCC testing is data on economic status, race, and ethnicity, whether a student has migrant or immigrant status, whether a student is homeless, and even whether a student has ever been expelled or not.

“Pearson told our state board that any student data they collect belongs solely [to] the state and that they, Pearson, are expressly limited in their contract with the State of Colorado to ‘use’ student data only under specified terms,” said Stickland. “I would like to know if there is a provision in the contract that allows Pearson employees to access student-level information in their database to identify individual students with the intent to locate those children. If so, this puts children at great risk of identity theft as well as other vulnerabilities. If not, how will the Pearson employees be disciplined for unauthorized access to student records?”

Haimson, Rubin, Stickland, and many other parents and activists are demanding better laws to protect student data and allow students the freedom to speak openly about the tests they are taking. It’s the job of legislators to listen to their constituents, and they have a moral responsibility to protect children in their states. Both state and federal laws need strengthening to do so.

Heather Kays (hkays@heartland.org) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute and is managing editor of School Reform News.