SAMPLE letter to gain access to your child’s data in the state student database

Since Cheri Kiesecker and I wrote an article in the Washington Post Answer Sheet about all the data that the state is collecting on children, parents in CO, NJ, RI, and many other states have asked us for a sample letter they can use to demand to see the data that states hold for their children in their longitudinal student databases. So we have drafted one below.

In most states, this request will be made via a Freedom of Information request to your State Education Department FOIA officer, and/or the Department’s privacy officer, if there is one. Parents should also copy the State Education Chief Information Officer and/or the State Commissioner, if their contact information is available.

FYI, the state cannot force you to come to their office to see your child’s data if that would be a hardship – as it would for most parents. And while they can charge a minimal fee to make copies, they cannot charge you for the search and retrieval of these records. If they try to charge you more than a minimal fee, you can appeal that decision. If the state is being obstructive in any way, please contact us at info@studentprivacymatters; we can strategize and/or help you write a FERPA complaint. And please keep us in the loop in any case!

For more information, see the US Ed Dept. letter to the state of Nevada, referred to below.

Thanks, Leonie Haimson, co-chair, Parent Coalition for Student Privacy

To whom it may concern:

I am the parent and legal guardian of (full name of child), currently (x) years of age.

My child attended x school in grades K-x (during what years); x school in grades x-y, (during what years) and x high school (during what years) in [what] school district.

Please provide me with whatever personally identifiable information (PII) that the State Education Department has collected on my child and which of this information is included in the state’s student longitudinal database, including any and all information in the database that has been contributed by other state agencies.

To access this information, and challenge it if it is incorrect is every parent’s right under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99), and the state cannot charge me a fee for accessing it.

This was confirmed by Dale King, Director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Family Policy Compliance Office, in a letter he wrote to the Nevada Education Department on July 28, 2014:

….educational agencies and institutions, as well as SEAs [State educational agencies] may not charge a fee for search and retrieval of education records. See § 99.ll(b)

According to the US Department of Education, you are obligated to provide me with my child’s data within 45 days of this request.

I also demand a list of any and all third parties, and/or governmental agencies, that have been provided with any of my child’s PII, which elements of PII they have received, and under what privacy and security agreements these disclosures were made.

Finally, I would like to know what governmental, citizen or advisory board exists to oversee the collection, use, distribution and eventual destruction of my child’s PII data, and their members.

Thank you for your cooperation in this matter and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

(Your name)
(Email address)
(Phone number)

Are Most Parents really Okay with Educational Use of Student Data?

Tim Farley is a public school parent, a public school Principal in the upper Hudson Valley and a co-founder of NYS Allies for Public Education.  He blogs here and this is reprinted with his permission. tim blog

Are Most Parents really Okay with Educational Use of Student Data?

The answer is most parents don’t know what data is being collected and shared in the name of “educational use”. This morning, I received my monthly subscription of the On Board newspaper published by the New York State School Boards Association ( I came across an article on page 11 misleadingly entitled, “Most Parents OK With Educational Use of Student Data, Says Survey”. It piqued my interest because I have observed a growing trend of parents being much more concerned about the sharing of their children’s personally identifiable information being shared beyond the classroom walls. So I read the article and then I read the report on which the article is based.

According to Gail Simidian, Research Analyst for NYSSBA, the survey of about 1,000 public/charter school parents revealed “Seventy-six percent said they have a clear idea about how their child’s school uses student data.” However, parents are “picky” about who can access that data (89% believe it is fine for school personnel to have access to their child’s data, “but less than 50% support non-profits or other educational firms having access.” (emphasis mine)

As the above result makes clear, most parents do NOT support vendors and other third parties outside of the school or district receiving their children’s personal data, as currently occurs with the proliferation of education technology and other corporations provided with access to this data.

The report is titled, “Beyond the Fear Factor, Parental Support for Technology and Data Use in Schools.” The study was undertaken by The Future of Privacy Forum to allegedly get a better understanding of what parents know and want with regard to the use of data and the use of the data within the educational system. Not surprisingly, this study was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (emphasis added)

In the Executive Summary, under the heading, “What do parents know about the use of technology in schools,” the survey indicates that parents believe they are very aware of the technology being used and furthermore, “they understand what data are collected and how they are used.”

Under the “conclusions” section of the Executive Summary, it states, “More work must be done to explain to parents how their child benefits from improving the effectiveness of educational products based on lessons learned in the classroom… and educators and vendors (emphasis added) must make an effective commitment to parents that student data will never be exploited.”

Wow! According to the authors of this study, it is now the school’s responsibility to commit to parents that their children’s data given (without parental consent) to third party vendors will not be exploited. I find this conclusion to be ludicrous.

From my observations, parents have very little knowledge of the sheer magnitude of data being collected on their children and being shared with third party vendors at an alarming rate. Leonie Haimson, Executive Director of Class Size Matters, recently co-authored an article in the Washington Post highlighting just how rampant this problem is in our schools.

Student data collected by districts and states and potentially shared include: race, ethnicity, income level, discipline records, attendance records, participation in free/reduced lunch programs, parental marital status, family income, social security numbers, grades and test scores, disabilities and Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), “mental health and medical history, counseling records, and much more.” (emphasis added)

According to the “Parent Query” report, all of these data can be shared with: US Department of Education, organizations that offer financial aid, researchers who analyze the data and use their findings to make recommendations about how schools can improve, companies that create educational software, websites and apps (emphasis added), and non-profit organizations.

Another disturbing piece of this study can be found on page 39: “Student information can measure and hold teachers accountable for their effectiveness in the classroom.” (emphasis added) The Value Added Model (VAM) and the use of student results on standardized tests to measure teacher effectiveness have been heavily criticized by the American Statistical Association as not being a valid nor reliable .

If parents were told how much data is being collected on their children and shared with other companies, organizations, and governmental agencies, all without their consent, they would overwhelmingly oppose this practice in even greater numbers than this survey reveals.

Would Bill Gates be okay with the Lakeside School (prestigious private school where Bill and Melinda Gates children attend) collecting these types of data and sharing those data with third party vendors? If the unfettered collection of student data isn’t what most parents would want for their children, why is Bill Gates paying for “studies” that seemingly attempt to persuade us that they do support this, and that more efforts must be made by their schools to convince them that the sharing of this sensitive data is good for our children?

In the future, I hope that NYSSBA’s publication, On Board, will more honestly report on research, and feature less “research” funded by Bill Gates that benefits Bill Gates.

I do appreciate the help in opening the eyes of those who read it to expose the wizards behind the curtain who now have access to everything they believe they have the right and need to know about every student in New York schools.

Why the Data Quality Campaign wants states to keep the Common Core


On Friday, Rob McKenna, board chair of the Gates-funded Data Quality Campaign, wrote an oped for the Seattle Times that appeared to be a response to the article Cheri Kiesecker and I wrote for the Washington Post Answer Sheet on Thursday.

In our piece, we explained how the Gates Foundation and the federal government, with the encouragement of the Data Quality Campaign, has spent millions of dollars to fund student longitudinal databases (SLDS), designed to track children from birth or preK onwards, amassing a huge amount of their personal information to be shared among state agencies, between states, and with third parties, all without parental knowledge or consent.

Before heading DQC’s board, Mr. McKenna was the Washington Attorney General from 2005 to 2012, before leaving to run for Governor, unsuccessfully.  It was Mr. McKenna who apparently told the Gates Foundation that the multi-state student database it was planning, and that Washington belongs to called WICHE, was illegal under federal privacy law, and that FERPA would have to be amended to allow this – which Arne Duncan promptly did in 2012.  As one of the founders of WICHE explained,

….based on a subsequent [to October 2010] conversation with a member of the Washington State Attorney General’s office, our plans to actually exchange personally identifiable data among the states would be impermissible under the FERPA guidance in effect at that time. …Changes in the federal government’s guidance on FERPA that went into effect in January, 2012 resolved this problem.

Not surprisingly, Mr. McKenna does not mention this fact.  Nor does he focus on the main topic of our article, student longitudinal databases, but instead, on the need for the state to remain committed to the Common Core, which he argues “has no impact on how states and schools collect and use student data. If a state were to repeal Common Core tomorrow, no changes would be made to schools’ data-privacy protocols. What’s more, four federal laws prohibit the creation of a federal database with students’ personally identifiable information.”

While this is narrowly true, the creation of multi-state databases will mirror what the federal government has wanted to achieve, but has been legally prevented from doing.  In addition, sharing and comparing student data among states is far less useful if they have different standards and different tests, which is presumably why Mr. McKenna is so insistent that Washington not abandon the Common Core standards, and their aligned exams, produced by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

If the member states agree, SBAC will also be able to pool personal student data, and disclose it to vendors and other third parties without parental consent.  Most worrisome is how SBAC has refused to provide parents with its privacy policy, even after being repeatedly asked to do so.  I would urge Washington parents and those in other SBAC states to request its privacy policy, and if they do not receive it, opt their children out of these exams.

The state of Washington has just received a new $7 million federal grant to further expand its student database, to analyze and share with third parties the “data explosion” they have amassed, in their words.  Here is an excerpt from their proposal abstract (emphasis below is mine):

“… significant resources are devoted to increased data access, more and more effective data visualization, the expansion of online reporting, and to increasing the understanding of the use of P20W data not only for analysis but also for decision-making. Just as important will be new ground that will be broken by the project through analyzing and researching outcomes for student populations receiving social services, students involved in the state’s juvenile justice system, and students receiving state financial assistance. ..The project would provide resources to ERDC and its partners to more quickly exploit the massive amounts of data available as well as create new research partnerships and cement old ones.”

All parents, including those who live in Washington, should demand to see what personal data your state is collecting for your children,  amend it if it is incorrect, and find out what third parties may have been given access to it –which is still your right under federal law.

See also the response to McKenna’s oped by WA privacy activist, Melissa Westbrook.

State Longitudinal databases: Tracking students from birth to the workforce and beyond

This piece is also posted  as “The astonishing amount of data being collected about your children.” at the Washington Post AnswerSheet.

By Leonie Haimson and Cheri Kiesecker, Parent Coalition for Student Privacy

Remember that ominous threat from your childhood, This will go down on your permanent record?” Well, your children’s permanent record is a whole lot bigger today and it may be permanent. Information about your children’s behavior and nearly everything else that a school or state agency knows about them is being tracked, profiled and potentially shared.

During a February 2015 Congressional hearing on “How Emerging Technology Affects Student Privacy,” Rep. Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin asked the panel to “provide a summary of all the information collected by the time a student reaches graduate school.” Joel Reidenberg, The Center on Law & Information Policy Fordham Law School Director, responded:

Just think George Orwell, and take it to the nth degree,” Reidenberg said. “We’re in an environment of surveillance, essentially. It will be an extraordinarily rich data set of your life.”

Most student data is gathered at school-via multiple routes; either through children’s online usage or information provided by parents, teachers or other school staff. A student’s education record generally includes demographic information, including race, ethnicity, and income level; discipline records, grades and test scores, disabilities and Individual education plans (IEPs), mental health and medical history, counseling records and much more.

Under the federal law known as FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, if medical and counseling records are included in your child’s education records they are unprotected by HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act passed by Congress in 1996). Thus, very sensitive mental and physical health information can be shared outside of the school without parent consent.

Many parents first became aware of how widely their children’s personal data is being shared with third parties of all sorts when the controversy erupted over inBloom in 2012, the $100 million corporation funded by the Gates Foundation. Because of intense parent opposition, inBloom closed its doors in 2014, but in the process, parents discovered that inBloom was only the tip of the iceberg, and that the federal government and the Gates Foundation have been dedicated to the goal of amassing and disclosing personal student data in many other ways.

Ten organizations joined together, funded by the Gates Foundation, to create the Data Quality Campaign in 2005, with the following objectives:

  • Fully develop high-quality longitudinal data systems in every state by 2009;
  • Increase understanding and promote the valuable uses of longitudinal and financial data to improve student achievement; and
  • Promote, develop, and use common data standards and efficient data transfer and exchange.

Since that time, the federal government has mandated every state to collect personal student information in the form of longitudinal databases, called Student Longitudinal Data Systems or SLDS, in which the personal information for each child is compiled and tracked from birth or preschool onwards, including medical information, survey data, and data from many state agencies such as the criminal justice system, child services, and health departments.

A state’s SLDS, or sometimes called a P20 database (pre-K to 20 years of age), P12, or B-20 (data tracking from birth), have been paid for partly through federal grants awarded in five rounds of funding from 2005-2012. Forty seven of fifty states as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands have received at least one SLDS grant.

Although Alabama, Wyoming and New Mexico are not included on the site linked to above, Alabama’s Governor recently declared by executive order that “Alabama P-20W Longitudinal Data System is hereby created to match information about students from early learning through postsecondary education and into employment.” Wyoming uses a data dictionary, Fusion, that includes information from birth. New Mexico’s technology plan shows that they moved their P-20 SLDS to production status in 2014 and will expand in 2015. This site run by the Data Quality Campaign tracks each state’s SLDS.

Every SLDS has a data dictionary filled with hundreds of common data elements, so that students can be tracked from birth or pre-school through college and beyond, and their data more easily shared with vendors, other governmental agencies, across states, and with organizations or individuals engaged in education-related “research” or evaluation — all without parental knowledge or consent,.

Every SLDS uses the same code to define the data, aligned with the federal CEDS, or Common Education Data Standards, a collaborative effort run by the US Department of Education, “to develop voluntary, common data standards for a key set of education data elements to streamline the exchange, comparison, and understanding of data within and across P-20W institutions and sectors.”

Every few months, more data elements are “defined” and added to the CEDS, so that more information about a child’s life can be easily collected, stored, shared across agencies, and disclosed to third parties. You can check out the CEDS database yourself, including data points recently added, or enter the various terms like “disability,” “homeless” or “income” in the search bar.

In relation to discipline, for example, CEDS includes information concerning student detentions, letters of apology, demerits, warnings, counseling, suspension and expulsion records, whether the student was involved in an incident that involved weapons, whether he or she was arrested, whether there was a court hearing and what the judicial outcome and punishment was, including incarceration.

This type of information is obviously very sensitive and prejudicial, and often in juvenile court, records are kept sealed or destroyed after a certain period of time, especially if the child is found innocent or there is no additional offense; yet all this information can now be entered into his or her longitudinal record with no particular restriction on access and no time certain when the data would be destroyed.

Expanding and Linking Data across States

Nearly every state recently applied for a new federal grant to expand its existing student longitudinal data system, including collection, linking and sharing abilities. You can see the federal request for proposals here.  Pay special attention to Section V, the Data Use section of the grant proposal, requiring states to collect and share early childhood data, match students and teachers for the purpose of teacher evaluation, and promote interoperability across institutions, agencies, and states.

The fifteen states and one territory, American Samoa, that won the grants were announced Sept. 17, 2015, and are posted here. The President’s 2016 budget request has a number of additional data­ related provisions, including a near tripling in funding for State Longitudinal Data Systems ($70 million) and Department of Labor Workforce Data Quality Initiative ($37 million) aimed at attaching adult workforce personal data with his or her student records.

Though the federal government is barred by law from creating a national student database, the US Department of Education has evaded this restriction by means of several strategies, including funding multi-state databases, which would have been illegal before FERPA’s regulations and guidance were rewritten by the Department in 2012.

The federal grants encourage participation in these multi-state data exchanges. One existing multi-state database is WICHE, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which includes the fifteen Western states that recently received an additional $3 million from the federal government. This WICHE document explains that the project was originally funded by the Gates Foundation, and that the Foundation’s goal of sharing personal student data across state lines and across state agencies without parental consent was impermissible under FERPA until it was weakened in 2012:

Upon approval of WICHE’s proposal by the Gates Foundation, the pilot MLDE (Multistate Longitudinal Data Exchange) project began in earnest in June, 2010, and the initial meeting to begin constructing the MLDE was held in Portland, Oregon, in October, 2010. It is worth placing the launch of the MLDE pilot within an historical timeline of events bearing on the development and use of longitudinal data. As the project got underway, the federal government’s guidance on the application of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) was still fairly restrictive. Indeed, based on a subsequent conversation with a member of the Washington State Attorney General’s office, our plans to actually exchange personally identifiable data among the states would be impermissible under the FERPA guidance in effect at that time. Though we were told we would have been able to assemble and use a de-identified dataset, which would have shown much of the value of combining data across states, not being able to give enhanced data back to participating states would have been a serious setback. Changes in the federal government’s guidance on FERPA that went into effect in January, 2012 resolved this problem.

The new guidance permitted the participating states to designate WICHE as an authorized representative for the purposes of assembling the combined data, while also allowing the disclosure of data across state lines and between state agencies.

Since 2010, the Gates Foundation has funded WICHE with more than $13 million. Just to underscore how powerful this organization has become, the Lieutenant Governor of Colorado, Joe Garcia, just stepped down from his post to head WICHE. Here is a helpful chart showing how student personal data is to be shared, among state agencies and across state lines.

Existing multi-state databases include not just WICHE, but also SEED, formerly Southeastern Education Data Exchange, now called the State Exchange of Education Data, including Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and South Carolina.

This North Carolina PowerPoint from 2013 describes what detailed information is to be shared among the states participating in SEED: data aligned with CEDS, including demographic information, academic and test score data, and disciplinary records. Here is a Georgia document, explaining how SEED will be “CEDs compliant” and describes in even more detail the sort of information that will be exchanged.

In addition, the two Common Core testing multi-state consortia funded by the federal government, PARCC and Smarter Balanced, are accumulating a huge amount of personal student data across state lines, and potentially sharing that information with other third parties. Under pressure, PARCC released a very porous privacy policy last year; Smarter Balanced has so far refused to provide any privacy policy, even after requests from parents in many of the participating states.

What Parents Should Do

Ask your State Education Department if they applied for this new grant to expand their SLDS, and if so, ask to see the grant proposal. You can also make a Freedom of Information request to the US Department of Education to see the grant application. Ask what methods your state is using to protect the data that the SLDS already holds, and if the data is kept encrypted, at rest and in transit. Ask what categories of children’s data they are collecting, which agencies are contributing to it, and what third parties, including vendors and other states, may have gained access to it. Ask to see any inter-agency agreements or MOUs allowing the sharing education data with other state agencies. Ask if any governance or advisory body made up of citizen stakeholders exists to oversee its policies.

You should also demand to see the specific data the SLDS holds for your own child, and to challenge it if it’s incorrect – and the state cannot legally deny you this right nor charge you for this information under FERPA.

This was conclusively decided when a father named John Eppolito requested that the Nevada Department of Education provide him with a copy of his children’s SLDS records, and the state demanded $10,000 in exchange. He then filed a complaint with the US Department of Education, which responded with a letter on July 28, 2014, stating that the state must provide him with the data it holds for his child, as well as a record of every third party who has received it; and that they cannot charge a fee for this service.

Parents also have the right to correct their child’s data if it is in error. Apparently Mr. Eppolito found many errors in his children’s data. Even if it is accurate, the data that follows your child through life and across states could diminish his or her future prospects. As this Department of Education study points out,

…imagine a student transferring from another district into a middle school that offers three levels of mathematics classes. If school staff associate irrelevant personal features with mathematics difficulties, the representativeness bias could influence the student’s placement… educators have been found to have a tendency to pay more attention to data and evidence that conform to what they expect to find. “

Schools could use this data to reject students, push them out, or relegate them to remedial classes or vocational tracks. There is also abundant research that shows that a teacher’s expectations play a significant role in how a student performs – especially for marginalized groups. This is called the Pygmalion effect in the case of a teacher’s positive expectations, and the Golem effect in the case of negative expectations. These studies reveal that if teachers are provided with positive or negative information about their students before having a chance to form their own opinions based upon actual experience, this prior information often tends to bias their judgments and perceptions of that student, creating self-fulfilling prophecies.   Parents should be legitimately fearful that positive or negative data may be used to profile their children, and potentially damage their chance of success.

What Else Can You Do?

If you send your children to a public school, under current federal law you have no way of opting out of the P20 profile that has been created by your state and potentially shared with others. You also have no right to refuse to have your child’s data disclosed to testing companies and other corporations in the name of evaluation and research. Researchers have legitimate interests in being able to analyze and evaluate educational programs, but any sensitive personal data should be properly de-identified and there must be strict security provisions to safeguard its access and restrict further disclosures, as well as a time certain when it will be destroyed. You do have the right to see that data, and challenge it if it is inaccurate.

You should also advocate for stronger state and federal laws to protect your child’s data and laws that give parents and students the right of ownership, including the ability to decide with whom it will be shared. You should urge your State Education Department to create advisory or governance boards that include stakeholder members, to provide input on restrictions on access and security requirements.

Any federal and state student privacy legislation should embrace five basic principles of student privacy, transparency and security, developed by the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy. Ask your elected officials to support TRUE data privacy and transparency legislation, to protect children. Parents deserve to know the data collected and shared about their children, and they should be guaranteed that their children’s data is safe from breaches and misuse.