Who Should Have Access to Student Records?
Education data can be useful, but privacy experts are concerned about data misuse.

US News | January 19, 2012
By Jason Koebler

Since “No Child Left Behind” was passed 10 years ago, states have been required to ramp up the amount of data they collect about individual students, teachers, and schools. Personal information, including test scores, economic status, grades, and even disciplinary problems and student pregnancies, are tracked and stored in a kind of virtual “permanent record” for each student.

But parents and students have very little access to that data, according to a report released Wednesday by the Data Quality Campaign, an organization that advocates for expanded data use.

All 50 states and Washington, D.C. collect long term, individualized data on students performance, but just eight states allow parents to access their child’s permanent record. Forty allow principals to access the data and 28 provide student-level info to teachers.

Education experts, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, argue that education officials can use student data to assess teachers—if many students’ test scores are jumping in a specific teacher’s class, odds are that teacher is doing a good job.

Likewise, teachers can use the data to see where a student may have struggled in the past and can tailor instruction to suit his needs.

At an event discussing the Data Quality Campaign report Wednesday, Rhee said students also used the information to try to out-achieve each other.

“The data can be an absolute game changer,” she says. “If you have the data, and you can invest and engage children and their families in this data, it can change a culture quickly.”

Privacy experts say the problem is that states collect far more information than parents expect, and it can be shared with more than just a student’s teacher or principal.“When you have a system that’s secret [from parents] and you can put whatever you want into it, you can have things going in that’ll be very damaging,” says Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “When you put something into digital form, you can’t control where that’ll end up.”

According to a 2009 report by the Fordham University Center on Law and Information Policy, some states store student’s social security numbers, family financial information, and student pregnancy data. Nearly half of states track students’ mental health issues, illnesses, and jail sentences.Without access to their child’s data, parents have no way of knowing what teachers and others are learning about them.

The federal government is taking steps to make the data more secure, however. In December, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act was revised to give parents more control over their children’s records. According to a parent information sheet released by the government, the revisions give parents “certain rights with regard to their children’s education records, such as the right to inspect and review [their] child’s education records.” But it also allows student information to be shared without parental consent.

“Your child’s information may be disclosed to another school in which your child is enrolling, or to local emergency responders in connection with a health or safety emergency,” it says.

Regardless of privacy concerns, education data is not going away. “The best thing we can do is continue to fund states that are taking this on in a holistic way,” Ed Secretary Duncan says.