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Board of education addresses Common Core data collection

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For many, the questions of "what" and "how" data will be collected and shared via the statewide data longitudinal system has been an ongoing topic of discussion under the topic of Common Core.

During a Feb. 11 West Virginia House of Delegates Education Committee meeting, more questions were asked in about the "what" and the "how," of the Student Data Accessibility, Transparency and Accountability Act.

Carla Howe, data governance manager for the West Virginia Department of Education, answered the numerous questions voiced by committee members.

What data will be collected?

Under House Bill 4316, the Department of Education data that would be contained in the data inventory would include, but would not be limited to, "any individual student data required to be reported by state and federal education mandates."

When it comes to the issue of parents' ability to choose to opt out of disclosing certain information, Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, asked if parents would be given that opportunity within the language of the proposed bill. 

"Is there any place in this bill that gives parents the right to deny access to their child's information or to restrict the information from being shared?" he asked. "Is there some place where a parent can say ‘I don't want this specific information' (to be shared), such as a social security number or health records?"

Delegate Denise Campbell, D-Randolph, also asked if "the parent (has) the right to not answer a question?"

The answer? It depends on the question. 

If the parent wishes to not disclose a social security number, a provision in the statute states that a social security number, address and telephone number may be required. Certain medical information may be required if it's contingent on a child participating in sports.

Where will the information go?

When it comes to "who" and "what" entities the information will be distributed to, Delegate Allen Evans, R-Grant, asked a question of his own.

"What information will be transmitted from company to company?" he asked. "Will it leave the state?"

While Howe said the "information doesn't leave the state, per se, in that we ship it or send it anywhere," information would be sent to the U.S. Department of Education and across state lines, she said. 

Many Common Core opponents argue that even though the information would not be shipped or sent anywhere, the fact that it would float from one department to another and from person to person is enough for them to say the information does, in fact, leave the state.

The information that would be transmitted to the federal government is in aggregate form, Howe said, and contains counts and reporting accountability numbers. Students of different subgroups at different performance levels also would be considered aggregate counts. 

According to Howe, identifiable information would not go to the U.S. Department of Education. 

However, because a list of the data being shared has not been made available, some are questioning how to tell what data falls into the identifiable information category. What category does each specific piece of data fall into? And some say the terms "aggregate" and "identifiable information" are just words that don't specify what data is going where.

While "identifiable information" is explained as merely "not being able to identity a student," that loose term doesn't hold much water either if the specific data is not disclosed. 

A scenario in which information would cross state lines would be if the Department of Education were to contract with a particular researcher at the state capacity.

Howe said that is might sometimes be necessary to hire someone to look at the numbers to make sense of it all. 

"That might mean working with one of our local universities, but it also might mean getting someone outside of that," she said.

Another outside source would be "the authorized staff of the department and the contractors working on behalf of the department who require access to perform their assigned duties as required by law and defined by interagency data-sharing agreements."

What the proposed House bill fails to point out or answer is what data-sharing agreements are, what they allow and who is represented by those agreements.

Some committee members pointed out that the language in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, recently was considerably weakened, making the protection of student information questionable and increasing the ability to misuse and mis-share student information. 

According to FERPA, someone who has violated a previous data law is allowed to regain access to personally identifiable information. Not only is the individual allowed to regain access but also to re-disclose it. 

"FERPA may outline some of the basic safeguards we are to comply with but we are creating processes and systems to make sure that that does not happen," Howe said.

Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, asked about potential safeguards in the event of inadvertent disclosure.

"In the event that a subset of data was so small that it might create the possibility that an individual could be identified, what's in place in regards to inadvertent disclosure?" he asked.

Howe said the board would implement a less than 10-type rule.

"If we're looking at subgroup information, demographics for example, we may have a subgroup that's a small cell size," she said. 

Not pulling reports from numerous places and "making sure you can't just subtract out from somewhere" should help lessen that possibility, she said.

"We're having to think through these processes," Howe said.   

Entering into "strict contracts" and having the data disposed of after it is used in a methodical way should also prevent the inadvertent, or intentional, misuse of student information, she said.

Current state and federal laws

In the proposed legislation, "access to student and redacted data in the statewide longitudinal data system shall be restricted to … notification to student and parents regarding student privacy rights under federal and state law."

But Butler asked if there was a reason the laws aren't stated.

"It occurs to me we're being asked to pass a law where we're told we're doing this based on applicable laws, but we don't know what the applicable laws are and they might not even be written yet," Butler said.

Butler also asked if there has been any rate increase in the amount of student data collected in recent years and if additional information will be collected.

"(The state board) has been collecting data for information systems since the early 90s," Howe responded. "In 2002-ish, there was an uptick in accountability measures and requirements of assessments. 

"Our collections, I would say, have been fairly stable since that time."

When asked if it would be possible to list the specific data that will be collected about students, Howe said a data dictionary is in the process of being completed.

Another question raised during the meeting was the possibility of information being inadvertently or deliberately misused to teach to the test and whether the teacher evaluations, based largely on student performance on the assessments, has the potential for misuse.

Members voiced concern that other factors, such as a child's home life, socioeconomics and other factors outside the classroom would not be adequately reflected or taken into account when it comes time for teacher evaluations.

While Howe said that is a possibility, the board currently is working to formulate a teacher-evaluation balance.

The House bill was scheduled to be discussed again Feb. 13.