New York Districts to Pass on Funding Over Mandated Data Collection

New York State’s school districts perpetually cry out for more cash, but some school leaders are increasingly becoming uneasy with state demands for collecting sensitive student data, prompting several districts to drop out of the Race to the Top initiative — and miss out on its funding — to avoid these requirements.

Plans by the state to collect student data, which they refer to as potential “student profiling,” have school officials, and especially parents, concerned.

“There are real concerns about profiling students, since the state wants us to provide disciplinary records, economic and social data, and more,” Rye Neck Superintendent Peter Mustich said. “Student data is sacrosanct. It’s disturbing to me that we don’t really know where the data will go.”

Superintendents aren’t clear on why the state wants about 400 categories of data, including student pregnancies, single-parent households and disciplinary records. According to Mustich, a meeting of 35 local school officials and representatives of the state Education Department to discuss concerns about student data collection and its potential use was unfruitful.

“Their answers to our specific questions about student privacy were ‘I’m not sure,’ ‘I don’t know,’ and ‘We’ll get back to you,’ ” Pleasantville Superintendent Mary Fox-Alter said. “They were not sure which personally identifiable student information will go to third-party vendors. But our students’ data is precious to us.”

Rye Neck, Pleasantville, Pelham and Pocantico Hills school boards have voted to drop out of New York’s participation in the Race to the Top program, hoping they will be able to withhold at least some data from the state. Dobbs Ferry, Hastings-on-Hudson and South Orangetown are other districts considering doing the same.

According to Gary Stern of lohud.com, school officials have two main concerns. First, the state is requiring all districts participating in Race to the Top to choose one of three new data “dashboards” prepared by contracted vendors. These dashboards are supposed to present student data in such a way that educators and parents will be better able to analyze student needs. Second, New York plans to use inBloom, a nonprofit funded by big education players such as the Gates Foundation, to store encrypted student data in a web-based “cloud.”

New York’s participation is key to launching the would-be national project. Colorado and Illinois are participating on smaller scales, and other states are involved without submitting data for now. New York plans to begin transferring data on more than 2 million students to inBloom by winter.

On Friday, Ken Wagner, associate state education commissioner said that the state’s data plans constitute a “complicated initiative” that has been difficult to explain. He said district officials may not realize that the state has long been collecting extensive student data from them with the assistance of private companies. He added that Federal law requires that much of this data be collected.

“I guarantee that all 35 of those superintendents who met with us have been providing information to third-party vendors for 10 years,” he said. “If a superintendent is not aware of this, it’s because they haven’t asked the question until now.”

Wagner said inBloom will not release any student information without the consent of the state and school districts while Pocantico Hills Superintendent Valencia Douglas is yet to convinced that extensive student data won’t be misused.

“Why are we desensitizing children and families about sharing confidential information?” she said. “Sure, the state believes it will ensure privacy. But we have seen examples all across the country of information being hacked. I don’t believe this information will only be used in the appropriate matter, no matter what people’s intentions are.”