Feds take huge step to protect student privacy

Lack of clarification around FERPA has created a game of ‘telephone,’ says the Data Quality Campaign.

Asking state leaders to use data to drive school improvement and innovation sounds like a logical idea, but how can they also maintain student privacy in this often treacherous digital age? To help answer this question, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on April 7 released a few innovations of its own.

Student data privacy is not a new concern. In 1974, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) was created to address the issue. But as the world goes digital, data breaches become an everyday occurrence, and ED continues to push for data-driven decision making as part of its school reform movements, it’s time to give FERPA a 21st-century makeover, experts say.

The push for a revamp comes not only from digital privacy concerns, but also as all 50 states have committed to building education data systems need to meet the September 2011 deadlines of the federal stimulus.

“The clarification of how FERPA applies to statewide data systems will be in sharp focus in the coming weeks,” said the Data Quality Campaign (DQC) in a press release. “In the 30 years since FERPA was enacted, the data landscape and the role states play in collecting, sharing, and using education data has changed, which has raised new questions about student privacy protections. States have sought clarifications that would not weaken privacy rules, but rather provide clarity and strengthen a confusing and outdated law.”

To meet the needs of privacy in the digital era, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is asking lawmakers to amend FERPA to ensure that ED’s implementation of the law “continues to protect the privacy of education records, as intended by Congress, while allowing for the effective use of data in statewide longitudinal data systems … as envisioned in the America COMPETES Act and furthermore supported under the 2009 [stimulus].”

“Lack of clarification around FERPA has created an unfortunate game of ‘telephone,’ in which different players have received, understood, and passed along different versions of what they have heard about FERPA,” said Aimee Guidera, DQC’s executive director. “States have received jumbled messages, which have created hesitancy to act. We hope these regulations will provide the clear answers that states need to move ahead to support … data use for continuous improvement and protect the privacy, security, and confidentiality of student-level data.”

In an interview with eSchool News, Guidera highlighted some areas where states have needed further clarification of how to comply with FERPA as they build out their data systems.

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