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Colorado education board not satisfied with answers on data privacy from testing company

March 13, 2015 Updated: March 13, 2015 at 4:20 am
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photo - Dr. Larry Wolk, chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, speaks before a meeting of the state school board, asking them not to take action that could reduce the number of anonymous surveys asking middle and high school students about their sex lives and drug habits, at the Colorado Department of Education, in Denver, Thursday, March 12, 2015. During an all-day meeting that included public testimony, the school board discussed the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
Dr. Larry Wolk, chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, speaks before a meeting of the state school board, asking them not to take action that could reduce the number of anonymous surveys asking middle and high school students about their sex lives and drug habits, at the Colorado Department of Education, in Denver, Thursday, March 12, 2015. During an all-day meeting that included public testimony, the school board discussed the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley) 

DENVER - Are parents just being paranoid or are their concerns about the privacy of student data that's collected during computerized testing and on surveys valid?

Perhaps some of both.

During a public hearing, the Colorado State Board of Education hosted Thursday, officials from the Colorado Department of Education and Pearson State Assessment Services tried to assuage fears and address rumors about what data is being collected and why.

But State Board members and parents who attended say the responses were not good enough. Some questions were not answered.

And they want more assurances that information students are supplying won't be mined, shared or extrapolated for marketing or profiling purposes.

"There's plenty of allegations that you do a lot more than you say you do," State Board member Steve Durham, R-Colorado Springs, told the three Pearson executives.

The public wasn't allowed to speak during the hearing on testing data privacy, although people could submit questions to the board. Later Thursday, about 20 people spoke on a related privacy issue involving the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey given to middle and high school students. The surveys include questions about sex lives and drug habits.

The board delayed until April a vote on whether to require active parental consent for surveys. Parents can opt their children out of the surveys, which public health officials say are vital to gauge what young people are doing. The surveys have been given to a sampling of students since 1991 and were significantly expanded in 2013.

In regard to testing data collection, the state contracts with Pearson, a for-profit education services company, to administer English language arts and math tests through the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and social studies and science tests under the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS).

Walter Sherwood, president of Pearson, said student information is the property of the state of Colorado. Pearson does not own the data and does not sell it or share it, unless "requested or authorized by the state." He also said student information is not "personally identifiable."

Randy Schuessler, vice president of assessment technology solutions for Pearson, said students sign in with a "randomly generated user name and password" and do not provide any personal information."

The company collects five categories of data. Some is mandated by state or federal laws, including race, ethnicity, gender, economic status, language proficiency, whether the student is currently expelled or gifted and talented, among others.

Special accommodations during testing, which computer tools are used to take the test, total time spent on a question and other information is gathered to direct future tests and address problems during testing, Schuessler said.

Colorado Education Commissioner Robert Hammond said contrary to rumors that circulated after new PARCC testing began in the past few weeks, no questions about gun ownership, drug use or religious preference have surfaced in the state assessments.

Schuessler said the company does not collect any type of national identification, military identification, Social Security number, home address or online address, social media information, academic records, criminal background, health or medical records, biological traits, photographs or other "nonacademic information," including gun ownership, sexual behavior and illegal activity.

"We want to be very clear and transparent about the types of data we do not collect," he said. "There's no stealth technology or monitoring, no cameras on devices during testing and no keyboard monitoring."

Why then, asked State Board member Deb Scheffel, R-Parker, all the angst?

"Is this a public relations issue merely, or are there real concerns of how these data are stored and what it's not used for?" she asked.

Sherwood said the issue is complicated.

"It's daunting to understand from a parent perspective. There are over 1,000 pages of contractual requirements; many address security requirements," he said.

Scheffel said many parents are concerned that algorithms and biometrics data, such as keystroke speed and emotions, are being logged during testing.

"Are people just coming up with these ideas because they're paranoid about data, or is it true algorithms do surface that parents do not want associated with their children?" she asked.

Schuessler said algorithms are continually developed but "not incorporated for further data mining or analysis with usage behavior."

"We do not do anything to try to detect emotional, biographic or psychological traits on students - we simply collect assessment data," he said.

Durham read a portion of testimony from a representative from a company called Newton during a recent congressional hearing on student data privacy: "We have a large publishing partnership with Pearson. They tag all their content. Anyone can tag us. You unlock trapped hidden data.." And "we literally know everything about you."

"What is it you're giving Newton that they're able to unlock an incredible amount of trapped hidden data?" Durham asked. "You would agree that statements like this are not particularly helpful in addressing issues we face about data security and privacy and data collection that follows a student to the end of the earth or at least the grave."

Sherwood said Newton's assistive math technology for college students has "nothing to do with the Colorado contract."

The "Newton engine helps drive instructional resources," he said, but is not personally identifiable - and is done when the client requests such services.

He said he could not further discuss the contract Pearson has with Newton.

While Sherwood said several times that Pearson contracts with Colorado for testing and abides by the contract, Scheffel said the contract is "very technical and extremely detailed," and "there's no way a parent would understand it."

"I barely understand it," she said. "Can we address the parent questions in a parent-friendly, lay person way?"

Joyce Zurkowski, executive director of assessments for the Colorado Department of Education, said while the testing is "secure" and "confidential," the department could have done a better job of informing the public about the data collection and usage. She said the CDE will compile a fact sheet with common questions and parent-friendly answers and post it on the department's website.

State education officials said unanswered questions gathered from parents around the state will be addressed. Those include Pearson data breaches and whether the aggregate data the state sends to the federal government can be disaggregated and used by the federal government for other purposes. And if so, what? The board took no action Thursday,.

"The CDE does not sell data but it shares data and that data can be sold - are these the nuances the public is dealing with?" board member Scheffel asked.

Sarah Sampayo, a parent at the hearing whose children attend schools in Lewis-Palmer School District 38 in Monument, said she thought the answers from Pearson officials were "very evasive."

"They do psychometrics, which is a psychological analysis of the data. Testing has gone beyond what the public is willing to accept as necessary for testing," she said, "and to me, they're not fully describing what they're doing. I think it means we shouldn't be trusting them with this very important job."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Debbie Kelley: 476-1656

Twitter @inkywoman

Facebook Debbie Kelley

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