Privacy Concerns Swirl Around Statewide Student Database

Jun 27, 2014

A second grade student gets right to work as classes start at Greenwood Elementary School in Des Moines, IA.
A second grade student gets right to work as classes start at Greenwood Elementary School in Des Moines, IA.
Credit Phil Roeder via Flickr Creative Commons

Nationwide, including Wyoming, states are working to build huge databases that can track students from preschool all the way into the workforce. In the brave new world of big data, the thought is—more information means smarter education policy decisions and improved learning. But some parents worry that these systems will go too far.

At Laramie County Community College, a classroom full of people is talking about control groups and independent variables. It’s not as exciting as it sounds, but it is important.

This is a workshop on Wyoming’s new Statewide Longitudinal Data System or SLDS. It’s a comprehensive database that, when up and running, will be able to track students throughout their schooling—and beyond.

“Well, I saw it as a great opportunity to come down and talk about different ways that we might be able to use the SLDS to answer questions that we have in higher education,” said Martha Davey, Associate Vice President of Academic Services at Central Wyoming College in Riverton.

“One of the questions that we have been unable to answer—as community colleges—is whether or not our students are being employed,” Davey said.

It’s a good question, and one the SLDS could theoretically answer. The technology does allow data to be shared across agencies—and not just those in education. A school could agree to share data with the Department Workforce Services or the Department of Health. The scope of the system has folks like Kelly Simone worried.

“Why is this much data necessary in order to educate children—when we’ve gone all this time without this much information?” Simone said.

She and others have been traveling to school board meetings around the state, raising concerns about SLDS. She says it could do a student more harm than good.

“Down the road the child is applying to go to med school, and the college can now look bad longitudinally and see what health issues this child has had or behavioral issues this child has had,” Simone said. “That could affect their ability to get into school. It could affect their ability in careers.”

Flint Waters, Wyoming’s Chief Information Officer, says that’s not what SLDS is for.

“We don’t want information that says, ‘This student got in trouble in the second grade and therefore, this decision,” said Waters. “It’s not designed for that, and we want to make sure that privacy is protected.”

Waters heads the Department of Enterprise Technology Services—and is basically the guy putting the SLDS mechanism together for the state. He says the longitudinal data systems many states use might go too far, but Wyoming’s system will be conservative.

“We’re designing a solution where we don’t allow dumping all the data in one bucket,” said Waters. “We’re building out methods of sharing data between disparate systems, but not in such a way that the originating agencies who can oversee how it’s properly represented—lose control over it.”

What he means is, ETS will set security standards and oversee data-sharing agreements for school districts and all other agencies. The sale of student data to private companies will be prohibited. Also, student records will be anonymous. In most cases, students would be identified in a shared dataset by a number, not a name. But, sometimes, Waters says, that may not go far enough. 

“A school with 7 students,” said Waters. “Is that data truly anonymized? Is it possible?”

In cases with such small sample size, he recommends these records be excluded from data exchanges. Waters says, every proposed use of student data, no matter how well-intentioned, should be weighed against privacy concerns.

“I think it’s really important that as those questions are formulated, a privacy impact review is done,” Waters said. “We look and say, ‘in order to answer that question, what would we have to gather to do it? And is it right to do it?’”

The legislature is also very interested in the issue. This year, it passed a law to firm up a student data security plan.

At a recent Joint Education Committee meeting, the Wyoming Department of Education’s Leslie Zimmerscheid told lawmakers they’re making progress.

“We are very serious about student privacy and protecting the data that is entrusted to us,” said Zimmerscheid. “As a result of the legislation, we really want to make sure that the policies that we have and the guidelines that we follow are available on our website for anyone to access.”

The Department expects to have that information on its website by the end of the year. Another piece of legislation established a data privacy task force. Senator Chris Rothfuss chairs that task force and says he needs to hear more proof that the ends justify the means.

“I’m still not entirely convinced that having a massive treasure trove of data on every student actually has improved any student scores, so to speak,” said Rothfuss. “I don’t see that yet.”

Rothfuss says more legislation is needed in regards to student data privacy. And, in the meantime, he prefers to err on the side of privacy, rather than data-gathering.

“Those types of systems probably are very useful for functional and efficient government,” Rothfuss said. “If we know everything about you, we can probably be a great government for you, whether you like it or not.”

These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen!  -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.