Ohio Board of Education balances collecting data and protecting privacy

Ohio’s State Board of Education made student privacy a priority in yesterday’s education data hearing.

“What data will be collected on my child?” Board President Debe Terhar read from an email she had received from one of a number of parents concerned with their child’s private information being accessed and shared by schools and outside parties. The board expressed parents’ apprehension toward the use of their son or daughter’s education records as it investigated the balance necessary between collecting data for accountability purposes and respecting the privacy of Ohio’s families.

The board invited testimony from experts in the data technologies currently used by Ohio schools as well as education privacy laws. Their aim was to provide the board – and their constituent districts and parents – with the latest information on challenges to effective data collection and threats to privacy.

The board questioned a panel of ODE data experts on the design and uses of the state’s Educational Management Information System (EMIS) and Instructional Improvement System (IIS). EMIS data proves necessary in state and federal funding formulas, performance accountability, and decision tools for policymakers. IIS provides current and secure data to teachers for individual student performance and curriculum alignment with standards.

The panel expressed confidence in the Ohio Revised Code’s data collection regulations, when asked by the board. Further, the panel referred to the systems’ data collection for measuring outcomes from Pre-kindergarten through postsecondary education as the “holy grail of program evaluation.”

Fordham and the board invited Kent Talbert, a leading expert on national education law from Washington, D.C. and former General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Education, to answer questions on the reality of student data collection and how the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) provides protection to students and their families’ personally identifiable information contained within educational records. Talbert’s testimony made it clear that FERPA appropriately guards the rights of the public, while providing agencies and taxpayers the accountability information they need to make smart decisions when it comes to funding and demanding high performance from their schools.

The 1974 law protects student privacy by giving parents the ultimate authority in reviewing and sharing their child’s education records. Modest changes over the past few decades have expanded the limited use of student data to make it easier for schools and states to conduct longitudinal studies and determine the effectiveness of teachers, schools, and districts. The law comes with a number of exceptions, Talbert explained, including revisions to make data accessible for audits by authorized representatives and sharing student enrollment data between schools.

FERPA is a conditional funding law that withholds federal funds from any educational institution that denies parents the right of consent and review of their child’s records.  It also cuts funding to schools and other entities receiving federal education funds that do not have in place policies that protect student information from unauthorized third parties.

In December 2011, the U.S. Department of Education implemented FERPA regulations making it “substantially easier for third parties to access personally identifiable information in student education records,” Talbert stated. The department pursued these new regulations in response to “the growing use of statewide longitudinal data systems and other data sharing programs that track student and educational program outcomes and success.”

“The new regulations allow authorities to more easily share and re-disclose data from student education records for purposes of audits, evaluations, and studies,” Talbert said. This wider use of data holds schools more accountable for results as the government and taxpayers can review outcomes of programs and funding through more effective use of long-term data collection. While the law concerns the private information of students, it is not a data collection law and does not grant any authority to the federal government to collect personally identifiable data. Talbert went on to note that Congress has, aside from FERPA, passed legislation to prohibit the establishment of any type of national database of personally identifiable information from educational records.

While data collection and maintenance has had sweeping changes over the past 40 years, FERPA has remained the safeguard for individual education privacy rights. It empowers parents to give to or withhold from schools consent to use their child’s education records, and the recent Department of Education regulations provide government entities with the information necessary for evaluation purposes. As data-driven standards and accountability continue to drive the trend of higher quality education, the board was wise to investigate the realities of education privacy law and its protection of individuals’ rights. 

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