There’s a database in New Hampshire, nestled in hard-drives in the Department of Education, with all sorts of information about student test scores, graduation rates, and achievement. It shows how poor kids do on tests compared to rich kids, and how minorities do compared to whites, and whether schools are improving on those tests.
Whenever the data in it is accessed, it’s totally anonymous; only a handful of employees at the DOE can match these test-scores with student names.
That makes New Hampshire already ahead of the curve, and that was the case before lawmakers passed a new student data privacy law.
National Privacy advocates are praising New Hampshire’s new measure, which Governor Maggie Hassan signed into law last week to basically no fanfare. They are saying it provides clarity in an area that in many states is largely unregulated.
“Student data is really… it’s really a wild-wild west situation,” explains Joshua Bleiberg who analyzes student data research for the Brookings Institution, “There’s a lot of good actors, there’s a lot of bad actors out there, and the ways that data is being gathered to say it’s largely unregulated is probably an understatement.”
But while the bill had a nearly frictionless run through the legislature, there are concerns that it could squelch innovation down the line.
“Among the Best”
Here in New Hampshire, student-data was already largely under lock and key even before this latest law was passed.
That’s thanks to one man.
“Neal Kurk is Mr. Privacy in New Hampshire,” says Bill Duncan, a newly minted member of the state Board of Education, and a staunch defender of public schools, “New Hampshire has among the best state level student data privacy laws in the country because of his work over the years.”
Representative Neal Kurk’s bill passed on unanimous votes in both houses of the legislature. It includes a laundry list of data that schools can’t give to the state for keeping on the centralized database, or to companies giving statewide tests. It ensures that any data that is given to a testing organization (currently Measured Progress, which gives the NECAP test, and next year the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) for the purpose of taking the test is destroyed immediately thereafter.
Duncan – who has positioned himself as the state’s most vocal advocate for the new educational goal-posts, the Common Core – and was into data privacy for his own reasons.
“It’s portrayed as an anti-common core issue, and I was particularly interested in removing it as an anti-common core issue,” he says.
For his part, Representative Kurk, is more concerned that the information that schools have doesn’t wind up in the wrong hands.
“Schools have enormous amounts of information about families and about students,” Kurk explains, “Medical issues, philosophical views, values… they do these assessments where a student is asked about his use of drugs, his sex activities.”
“The question is who should have access to that data?” asks Kurk.
Under the new law Schools can still gather data and give it to researchers or companies providing some sort of educational product, but that data isn’t warehoused all in one place.
“The problem with having all data in state depository is that it’s so easy in the future to change the law and then all of this information would be available,” says Kurk.
"Where the 'Big' in Big Data Gets It's Value"
The law is catching the attention of national privacy watchdogs, like the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC. A group concerned that student data will be used by people who aren’t necessarily interested strictly in improving student’s grades.
“Without appropriate checks and balances, you could use that – yeah for research purposes – OR to say we’re going to market to these children,” says Kaliah Barnes director of the Student Privacy Project at EPIC.
Barnes, who looks at privacy bills nation-wide, is impressed with New Hampshire’s law. “I would say that this is one of the most comprehensive laws that I have seen.”
Bleiberg with the Brookings Institution sees it as a step forward as well.
“I think largely it strikes the right balance,” he says, though he does add a caveat, “I do have some concerns about how some things could play out in the future.”
While the law still allows schools to contract individually with companies that want to use student data to provide some sort of personalized education product, it would restrict those organizations access to New Hampshire’s so-called “big data”.
What does that mean?
Bleiberg says imagine a student who’s new to a district, doesn’t speak much English, and has a specific learning disability.
“It’s likely that there’s no-other students like that in the district that the student just transferred to,” he says, “But when you can compare across an entire state or larger than that, rather than just saying what happened to other struggling students, they’re saying let’s look at what worked for a student very much like this one who’s right in front of me."
"So that’s where the ‘big’ in big data gets its value.”
Those kinds of services are still mostly theoretical, and it’s no sure thing they really need access to New Hampshire’s database to work.
So New Hampshire policy makers feel sure they haven’t closed the door on anything too important, though they may change their mind if big data actually does start to change the game in education nation-wide.