Blog of Rights

Technology Changes Things. Latest Example: Student Records.

By Chris Calabrese, Legislative Counsel, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 2:16pm

Schools care about kids. Some are better than others but educators get into the business because they want to help kids grow and learn. Any teacher will tell you one of the key ingredients for doing that is knowing your kids. What kind of student are they, how are things at home, are they having discipline issues, the list goes on and on. In order to accomplish this, schools (big surprise) keep records so they can monitor educational achievement and other things. Of course this is generally a good thing, caring equates to better education.

The problem (and there is always a problem), comes when you sprinkle in the magic of technology, specifically, interlinked databases of school records. Under No Child Left Behind and other education mandates, schools have been required to collect more information and to share it with the state and federal government. Much of this sharing is in disaggregated (anonymous) form, however for auditing and other purposes, it still has to be linked to identifiable information about students.

Now, the outlines of the problem start to reveal themselves. It might have been okay for a local teacher to know about a student's rotten home life or health issues but it seems a lot less okay when that information can be accessed by a wide variety of faceless bureaucrats. Worse, when we start to store it electronically (especially for tracking students over time) the data retention periods get longer and longer. How long do we have to save the fact that you cheated on a test in high school?

This is not a hypothetical problem. The hard-working folks at the Fordham Center on Law and Information Policy reviewed the state data collection practices on K-12 students in all 50 states. A sampling of the data collected by particular states includes: pregnancy, mental health information, criminal history, birth order, victims of peer violence, parental education, medical test results, and birth weight. They also found that information was not being handled in compliance with current law, and that there were no clear rules for accessing the information.

Bad, right? It could get a whole lot worse. H.R. 3221, the "Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009" (SAFRA) has already been passed by the House and is currently being considered in the Senate. This is generally a good bill, but it has in it a proposal to expand these databases of student records to college and workforce education. Some proposals even want to include birth to kindergarten. Suddenly, this looks like a pretty good start on a birth-to-death database where your every mistake is catalogued and saved forever. We talk about the problems and solutions in more detail in our recent letter to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Technology changes things. It's not just students that have to learn to use the latest computers and software. Educators and education officials have to recognize that the systems and data they use will have real ramifications for kids and the adults they become.

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