Student privacy, data up for discussion at Howard PTA panel

When parents send their children to school, they expect them to be in a safe and nurturing environment. Part of that safety comes from the confidentiality of student records, which was the hot topic of discussion at the PTA Council of Howard County's Student Privacy and Data Collection Forum Monday, Nov. 4.

"Parents are concerned about what's being collected, how it's being used, who it's being shared with and what protections they have under the law, and how the data collection impacts their children's privacy," said PTA Council President Christina Delmont-Small.

Delmont-Small said the forum grew from parent concern over the collecting of data like height and weight through a program called Fitness Gram, which the system has been doing for 10 years, said the system's Chief Accountability Officer Grace Chesney.

The difference, starting last year, is that data is being given to the Horizon Foundation, a local organization dedicated to improve the health and wellness of people living and working in the county.

The Horizon Foundation gave HCPSS a $120,000 grant last year to make that program more efficient and is using data — which is scrubbed of student names and other identifications — to track progress of students' health.

"Better numbers lead to smarter investments in community health," Horizon's Chief Program Officer Glenn Schneider said Tuesday. "It provides a valuable way to track our progress in reversing childhood obesity."

The panel Monday night consisted of privacy advocates experts from major educational institutions: Chesney, Director of the U.S. Department of Education's Family Policy Compliance Office Dale King, Chief Academic Officer of the Maryland State Department of Education Jack Smith, privacy and student rights advocate and founder of Education New York Sheila Kaplan, principal counsel for the state Board of Education and MSDE Liz Kameen and Director of Federal Policy Analysis with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Barmak Nassirian, who was at the event pro se.

King kicked off the panel by discussing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which authorizes local school systems to disclose certain information from educational records to other parties. The law gives parents the right to access their child's educational records and to "opt-out" of allowing their child's information to be shared. Some of the disclosing, however is mandated, King said — Howard County has to share its standardized test scores with MSDE, for example.

FERPA also allows the creation of a student directory of information like a student's name, address, telephone, date of birth and other information, which can be released to PTAs and booster clubs, military recruiters, a community college representative or the Maryland Higher Education Commission. But, according to the HCPSS parent and student handbook, "parents/guardians have the right to restrict the school system from releasing any category of directory information about their child."

It's the directory that raises red flags for privacy advocates like Kaplan.

"The minute you register your child for school, you will never again know who has their personal information," she said.

But better data means better decision-making from legislators, Kameen said. The state is currently working on creating the Maryland Longitudinal Data System, which draws educational records and information from public schools, institutions of higher education and the Maryland Department of Licensing and Labor. The database won't be fully developed until December 2014, but when it's complete, Kameen said, it will provide a comprehensive look at education in the state.

"Are students academically prepared for post-secondary education? How many high school students go on to enroll in college? What percentage have to take remedial courses there?" she said.

That data is all de-identified, meaning it's scrubbed of personal information, and Kameen said the goal of the database is to use "timely, accurate and de-identified data to analyze way to improve education in Maryland," like where money can be used most effectively. But Nassirian and Kaplan said that there is no such thing "as de-identification."

"If you have enough data, (de-identification) doesn't work," Nassirian said.

De-identification is most commonly used on MSDE's website,, where test scores are available down to a certain student group in a certain school. But if fewer than 10 students are in a category, Smith said, the data isn't posted, as students could feasibly identified in that way.

"We should only collect the data we need," King said. "It's so easy to have a database of people with data on everything — there can be a risk. ... But in my experience, schools and states are very conscientious about ensuring the privacy of student records."

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