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Colorado parents worry about what government, businesses know about their kids

February 21, 2015 Updated: February 24, 2015 at 10:50 am
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photo - Parents Sarah Sampayo, left, and Cheryl Darnell discuss their concerns about data mining in schools with The Gazette's Debbie Kelley.
Parents Sarah Sampayo, left, and Cheryl Darnell discuss their concerns about data mining in schools with The Gazette's Debbie Kelley.  

Traci Burnett, a Monument mother of three, doesn't consider herself an alarmist or a conspiracy theorist. And she's never been an activist.

But something has her so riled up that she's sounding a loud Big Brother distress call.

Burnett, and growing ranks of parents, think public schools are becoming like an Orwellian state.

"It's crazy. It's creepy. Why are they collecting all this data on our children, and what are they doing with it?" Burnett said.

As national and state legislators consider enacting new laws on data privacy, parents say too much personal information about their children and households is gathered and disseminated without their knowledge or consent.

Some parents think that information such as when a toddler was potty trained, if a kindergartner washes his hands after going to the bathroom, whether a student has tried to commit suicide, what kind of trouble a student has gotten into at school, if a child takes medication for hyperactivity and religious affiliations of families has become a commodity that is being handed over to government agencies, organizations and businesses that parents say have no business knowing it.

"Parents are largely unaware that their children's data is being collected and shared outside of the school," said Cheri Kiesecker, a Colorado mom of two. "Data collection almost seems unbelievable for parents to comprehend. We assume everything's kept in a filing cabinet."

But technology has changed data collection, storage and usage, and now, "Data is almost like stock," she said. "The more data you own, the more valuable your company is. Data is currency."

Academic, funding uses

The Colorado Department of Education is required by state and federal laws to collect certain data on students to "help guide parents, teachers, school, districts and state leaders, as we work together to improve student achievement so all children graduate ready for college and career," said Dana Smith, director of communications.

That includes student demographics, test scores, attendance, family financial information, learning disabilities, graduation and remediation rates and interventions.

The data is used to provide school and district performance reports to parents and monitor and evaluate programs, Smith said. The information also figures into requests for federal dollars to fund programs for special education, impoverished students and English-language learners.

CDE officials, authorized school and district personnel and "contracted vendors with signed privacy obligations for specified applications" have access to the data, Smith said. Vendor means operators of an Internet website, Cloud computing or other online service and mobile applications designed for public school purposes.

The student data is aggregated and not personally identifiable, Smith said, adding that "the federal government does not have the authority to collect individual student data."

Parents aren't convinced information about their children is secure or protected. Local mom Sarah Sampayo told Colorado lawmakers at a recent data privacy hearing in Denver that even without a child's name, "giving your age, grade level, race, gender, height, weight, etc. are sufficient enough data to identify a person - we catch criminal suspects with less identifiers than that."

She also thinks that having students write ID numbers instead of their names on scratch paper that is submitted with standardized tests, along with test answers, can be "mined to profile kids for racial, religious, political, sexual and other psycho-social data points."

Parents trace the barrage of data that can be amassed to student responses to surveys, classroom videotaping for studying teaching strategies and a new data pipeline that tracks hundreds of data points on every student from preschool into college.

The data pipeline information, which in Colorado is called the "Golden Record," is required of states that have used money from President Barack Obama's federal Race to the Top initiative and adopted Common Core academic standards.

The data can be shared across states and likely with agencies such as the Department of Corrections and the Department of Human Services.

"The whole thing is quite a beast," said Bethany Drosendahl, a Colorado Springs mother of three. "It's so opaque, and there's such a lack of transparency."

Internet marketing concerns

New academic standards and testing, along with classroom technology that enables students to do school work online, have added to the concerns.

At a legislative hearing on data privacy in Denver earlier this month, parents testified that after completing online homework, their children would receive advertising geared to their needs that became evident during the homework assignment.

Drosendahl, who served on a legislative task force that last fall analyzed the state's academic standards and testing, said while there are many unanswered questions, a memorandum of understanding between Colorado's education officials and PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, shows that the organization collects "behavioral and emotional data" and does "cognitive labs."

"This gets into some very subjective areas that in my opinion is outside the scope of determining whether a student knows their multiplication," Drosendahl said. "Couple that with a complete lack of any data privacy, and it's very troublesome."

PARCC, a multi-state consortium that Colorado belongs to, develops standardized tests in reading, writing and math. It's also a nonprofit, and nonprofit organizations are not covered by existing privacy laws.

PARCC testing is administered online by a British-based for-profit education company, Pearson. During testing, pop-up surveys have been reported to appear on the computer that "ask students to reveal non-academic information," Sampayo said.

Pearson spokesman Brandon Pinette said that while Pearson collects data, it does not share it.

"Pearson does not own the data; it is owned by our customers, the school or school district," Pinette said in an email. "We are not in the business of selling personally identifiable student data or permitting its use for targeted advertising."

Pinette said Pearson works "one-on-one" with educational institutions or agencies to "ensure its data is protected and our controls are consistent with the organization's relevant requirements, including the promises it makes to its learners."

Online vendors, such as software and database companies, are capable of collecting "massive profiles of data on a child," Kiesecker said, "and these vendors can share that data with third parties for research and marketing purposes."

"This data can be highly personal, and online data is especially concerning because we know once something is put on the Internet, it is difficult, if not impossible, to retract."

Parents also say they are worried about the value and meaning behind student surveys, such as the "Healthy Kids Colorado Survey," administered randomly to schools and optionally to students every other year. The survey has raised eyebrows because it seeks information about students' sexual activity, drug use, moods and other emotions and behaviors.

"They're asking how old you were when you first had sexual intercourse, have you ever been molested, how many times you've driven a car when you'd used marijuana - these questions are extremely invasive," Sampayo said. "To require schools to participate in this is extremely disturbing and borders on child abuse."

Burnett agrees, saying despite the government officials' claims the survey is anonymous, she's "not buying it."

A woman at the statehouse hearing said "'if kids are suicidal, we need to help them.' How can that make it anonymous?" Burnett said.

Loopholes in laws

Federal laws protect children's privacy. However, most have loopholes. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act doesn't cover online educational data or third-party vendors. While the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act does not apply to children over age 13, nonprofit organizations such as testing consortiums, or government agencies, such as schools. Those two are up for Congressional revision, and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colorado, is expected to propose stricter federal student data privacy legislation this week, in partnership with U.S. Rep. Luke Messer, R-Indiana.

Last year, Colorado lawmakers approved legislation that strengthened disclosure of what individual student data is reported, but the bill did not address privacy when it comes to vendors or school districts.

The Colorado State Board of Education agreed Thursday to endorse a data privacy bill that would include those issues that were left out of last year's bill.

Parents such as Kiesecker are hoping the bill, sponsored by Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, and Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, will gain approval. The legislation would, in most cases, prohibit vendors from doing targeted advertising based on student information, creating student profiles, selling or disclosing information.

"We hope it will increase transparency from vendors, requiring the vendors to publicly post the types of student data they collect and who it is shared with," Kiesecker said.

Parents such as Burnett fear that student data could fall into the wrong hands and be used against them, such as by insurance companies or prospective employers.

So she's among many parents who have decided to refuse to have their children take the standardized tests because of the potential for data sharing.

"I think people have forgotten these are my kids, not the school's," she said. "When you start linking all this data - my kid's biometrics, with an address, a juvenile record, voter registration, you get a profile, and there's so much wrong with that.

"The danger is that the information doesn't need to be in the hands of the state or federal government. It reminds me of China - we're going to flow you to the correct job so you can be productive in our society."

During a Feb. 12 Congressional hearing in Washington on how emerging technology affects student privacy, Fordham University Professor Joel Reidenberg was asked what information would be available in one place that someone could find on a given student from preschool through college. "Think George Orwell and take it to the nth degree," he answered.

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