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The Trouble With Testing Groups' Agreements On Student Data Privacy

While the two state testing consortia are drafting or finalizing policies to safeguard student data, they are contending with a stumbling block created by the very entity that is paying for the development of those tests: the federal government.

The agreement that each consortium signed with the U.S. Department of Education is giving some parents, data-privacy advocates, and others cause for jitters, and handing critics ammunition in their attacks on the common-core project that is taking shape in millions of classrooms.

Take a look at this section of the cooperative agreement that the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessment groups signed in 2011 in order to receive $360 million in Race to the Top grant money from the U.S. Department of Education:

dataprivacy-cooperative.JPGIt's not the only phrase that is causing headaches for the two consortia as they try to calm jitters about how student information will be collected and who will get to see it. As we reported earlier, in telling you about PARCC's new data-privacy policy, another phrase is proving troublesome, too. Here, the agreement says that the consortia will

dataprivacy.JPG

The federal education department has responded to the bubbling-up of concern by posting a "myths and facts" document on its website, and by issuing clarifying guidance to at least one state, Florida, in an email. Those documents offer strong reassurance about access to student data. But the department has hardly made a campaign of getting this message out.

Consortium officials are gnashing their teeth about this privately, and pushing hard to clarify in their own data-privacy policies that participating in a shared assessment system does not open any new pipeline of student information to the feds; states are still in charge of what data gets collected and where it goes.

The phrasing in the cooperative agreement, though, keeps a cloud hanging over this message. Smarter Balanced spokeswoman Jacqueline King, at a recent gathering of education writers, lamented wording in the agreement that consortium officials "kind of wish wasn't in there."

How well the consortia and the federal education department can put skeptics at ease without changing the agreement itself remains to be seen.

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