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State data systems present privacy concerns

Creators of state data systems are trying to find the right balance between obtaining useful information and respecting data privacy.

Data privacy is a top concern for stakeholders when it comes to using educational data to drive student achievement and school improvement—and an Oct. 21 webinar from the Data Quality Campaign revealed that IT staff are trying hard to uphold data privacy while at the same time implementing valuable state data systems.

“We have been frankly paranoid about taking Social Security numbers and matching them to different data sets to a point where we can create a worker education record, because when you do that … you can actually find out quite a bit about somebody,” said Carol Rogers, deputy director of the Indiana Business Research Center.

But concerns about access to sensitive information aside, the educational data obtained through such a tracking system are valuable. “I don’t care. I want the results of the data,” said Rogers.

Others are more cautious.

Michelle Kalina, senior director of operations for the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success, said limiting access to databases and encrypting information are important when it comes to handling educational data and protecting data privacy.

“We are truly paranoid about privacy and maintaining the integrity of the system,” said Kalina. “The [information] gets encrypted at its school site before it ever leaves.”

“Having as few people as possible have access to student-level data is probably the best thing you can do to make sure you maintain [data] privacy and security,” added Ruben Garcia, manager of the Texas Workforce Commission.

Linking educational data systems across states

Panelists also examined how best to link various educational data systems both within and across states, and they discussed the need for educators to know what methods of teaching are most effective for students in post-secondary education and the workforce.

“We’re living in an interesting world, where every single state is living under the expectation that [it] will have the ability … to be able to communicate and share data among the early learning, K-12, post-secondary, [and workforce [environments], and yet we only have eight states that report having the capacity to do so,” said Aimee Guidera, executive director of the Data Quality Campaign, who moderated the discussion.

“The answers are out there; there are states that are finding a way and finding solutions and really maximizing and leveraging the use of these [state] data systems,” she said. “The purpose of the system is to conduct a follow-up on education and workforce training participants, exiters, and completers at the one-year, three-year, and five-year [period] after exit.”

“People are interested in joining us because there’s something in it for them. They’re getting data back on how their students are doing as they move across segments,” said Kalina.

However, as Guidera pointed out, there is no single way for states to connect these educational data systems. This had proven to be an issue when students pursue careers or education out of state.

Jay Pfeiffer, program director of Florida’s State Longitudinal Data Systems, discovered this when helping the Florida legislature track educational data on students after they graduated.

“By bringing together educational data and employment data, we were able to demonstrate that these graduates were getting employed in technology companies; they just weren’t in Florida,” said Pfeiffer.

Mike Lewis, assistant superintendent of the Grossmont High School District in California, used similar educational data sets to compare English curriculum at the high school level to programs at area community colleges and universities.

He discovered that high school English programs weren’t adequately preparing students for college-level work.

“Once they did move forward from a high school level, [the students] were not prepared to do the writing and rhetoric work that was done at the college level,” Lewis said.

District officials used that information to rework the district’s high school English program. The resulting data show that 83 percent of the students who took the revamped English course and moved to the next level in college received a “C” or better, compared to only 67 percent of students who were placed in the course through placement tests.

“We need to start making the case to people in these hallowed halls [and] to our state legislatures about the commitment to sustaining these [state] data systems … and that’s only going to happen when we can show the value and the impact that these data systems provide,” said Guidera.

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