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September 23, 2014

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State superintendent says policy review will help ensure privacy maintained in student records

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AP Photo/Cathleen Allison

Dale Erquiaga gives a press briefing Friday, May 27, 2011, at the Capitol in Carson City. At the time, Erquiaga was a senior adviser to Gov. Brian Sandoval. Erquiaga is now the state superintendent of public schools.

Nevada Schools Superintendent Dale Erquiaga has ordered a complete review of the Education Department’s student privacy policies and data-sharing agreements amid concerns from parents about third-party access to their children’s school records.

During an interim legislative committee hearing on education on Tuesday, Erquiaga told state lawmakers his department was analyzing what types of student data it collects and how it was shared with test companies. Erquiaga said he intended to share his findings with the public after his review was completed.

In Nevada, some parents are taking issue with how student information might be shared with test vendors and the federal government as the Silver State begins instituting the new, more rigorous Common Core academic standards. Nevada is one of 45 states using the new standards.

With their adoption come new standardized tests. This spring, about 44,000 Nevada students in third to eighth grade will pilot a new computerized assessment, which is being developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Some parents are lobbying state lawmakers to look into Nevada’s contract with the Smarter Balanced test developer to find out what kinds of student records are being collected and whether it would be shared with the federal government. The parents say they are fearful these student records might include information like parents’ political or religious affiliation and students’ medical and disciplinary history.

Paige Kowalski, director of state policy and advocacy with student data nonprofit organization, Data Quality Campaign, said the federal government currently didn’t have access to state’s student information.

“You own your data and you determine who will get the data by law,” Kowalski testified. “Once (testing companies) administer your test, they can’t share that data to others. They will have to abide by state laws and federal (student privacy) laws.”

Nevada’s student privacy review comes as the state develops a new student data system that will track students from preschool until they enter the workforce. The state has received more than $9 million in federal and state grant money to develop this new “longitudinal student data system.”

Proponents argue it will help policymakers determine which education programs are working. For example, lawmakers can see how many students from a particular class graduate from high school, go onto college and enter a particular industry.

Some critics, however, question whether such a system is necessary and if the state is collecting too much information on students.

“I never thought education was preparing kids to get to the workforce. I thought that was a byproduct of education,” said State Sen. Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas. “I think that’s too much information.”

Erquiaga tried to assuage concerns about student data privacy.

“The law prohibits us from releasing student information,” Erquiaga said. “Student information is private.”

Erquiaga argued his department has long collected relevant student and academic information to create accountability reports using aggregate student data.

“I only want information that will help students and educators improve,” Erquiaga said. “Without this information, we can’t make these kinds of policy decisions at the state level.”

John Eppolito, who has four children in public schools in Northern Nevada, urged state lawmakers to study Nevada’s contract with Smarter Balanced. The former teacher who is fighting the implementation of new Common Core standards also encouraged lawmakers to adopt an opt-out policy for parents who didn’t want their children to be tested.

“There’s no firewall that cannot be breached,” Eppolito said. “You have to find a way to protect us.”

Laws on books protect students' privacy

Currently, a patchwork of federal and state laws govern how student information is collected and used.

The Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act, adopted in 1974 and revised in recent years, limits school districts from disclosing student records with personally identifiable information. The federal law allows for some exceptions, such as research and school contractors. (School bus companies, for example, need student information such as homes addresses, to provide transportation services.)

However, some privacy advocates argue current federal and state laws leave too much to interpretation and don’t account for new technologies, such online portals for homework assignments and lessons.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Education Department urged school districts to review what online services are being used in schools. The department also encouraged districts develop procedures to evaluate and approve educational services and, when possible, draft a legal contract.

State legislatures are also taking action to improve student privacy laws. In recent months, legislators in 26 states have introduced bills to limit the kinds of student data can be shared and with whom, along with beefing up penalties for illegal disclosures.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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