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State releases agreement for data system that raised concerns

The ink was barely dry on New York’s agreement with an organization that is building an interstate student data project when parents and advocates raised concerns about it this weekend.

The parents and advocates held a press conference Sunday about a letter that they sent Friday to the state’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch. The letter asked the officials to halt New York’s participation in the Shared Learning Collaborative until the state assures them that student information will be secure.

But the state only finalized its agreement with the SLC, a nonprofit group that aims to help state avoid building duplicative data systems, on Thursday, according to a signed agreement that state officials provided to reporters this weekend. The officials said the terms of the agreement should quell privacy concerns about the system, which each state will use and augment independently.

Some of the parents’ and advocates’ allegations — they suggest in their letter that the state might be preparing to sell student data to for-profit companies — are simply incorrect, according to Ken Wagner, a State Education Department associate commissioner. But he said today that other concerns raised in the letter reflected important questions about privacy and security that the department had previously not answered publicly.

“They were right to raise those issues, but we believe those issues have been addressed in our agreement,” Wagner said.

Norm Siegel, the lawyer representing the parents and advocates, was not available to review the agreement immediately upon its release late Sunday. But Leonie Haimson, a longtime parent activist who spearheaded the complaint, said she was not reassured that student data would be insulated from being used by for-profit companies.

“Nothing in this agreement that would give anyone confidence or lessen anyone’s concern about the potential risk involved,” Haimson said.

New York became one of the first five members of the SLC when it launched last year with funding from the Gates Foundation and other education philanthropies. The organization was created at a time when many states were beginning to create systems to manage student data in new ways, at great expense to their taxpayers. The philanthropies’ goal was to introduce an economy of scale by building a shared platform that each state could use independently.

“Right now these data are being collected; right now these data are being used by teachers, parents and students; and right now they are being provided to private contractors to help them meet those needs. none of that changes,” state officials said today at a briefing for reporters about changes to the state’s testing system. “The change here is that we’re trying to invest in this platform so that we can provide an easier way for districts to spend the money that they are already spending to get a better value.”

State officials today likened the arrangement to that of an iPhone: Multiple users have the same basic operating system, but they can populate the system with their own data — student test scores — and also enhance it with their own apps. Data will never be shared across users, the officials said, but an enhancement that one state develops could become available in the “SLC Data Store.”

Both a non-binding memorandum of understanding signed in April and the more contractual service agreement say repeatedly that the state’s use of the SLC is contingent on complying with privacy rules set in FERPA, the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. In December, when state education officials briefed Tisch and the Board of Regents on the project, they wrote, “The protection of student privacy is and will remain the priority throughout the development and implementation of the SLC.”

But Haimson said she remained concerned about the participation of for-profit vendors, including Wireless Generation, the education technology company that is leading the SLC’s data system construction. Even if the state does not intend to sell student data, she said, the data will be “in the hands of a private corporation — and the rules are not clear.”

Wireless Generation lost a state contract to create a student data system in 2011 because in part because of revelations about illegal wiretapping conducted by some publications owned by its parent company, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. In August, the state again awarded Wireless Generation a portion of a data contract but said that its portion of the portfolio would focus on delivering curriculum materials to teachers and would not bring the firm anywhere near student data.

Currently, state officials are just beginning to test the SLC in an “alpha” form that is not available to teachers and principals, Wagner said. The system is supposed to go online for their use in a year, he said.

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