Virginia officials highlight privacy protections in new data system

A group of researchers, educators and technology developers met Tuesday to talk about the revolutionary potential of a newly integrated multimillion-dollar data system in Virginia to improve the ways public schools and universities prepare students for college or future jobs.

But every goal mentioned at the day-long conference in Fairfax about harnessing more detailed information about students’ academic and employment records came with a reassurance that the state would keep personal information private.

“This is not the greatest time in government to be talking about the cool data we collect,” said Virginia Education Department spokesman Charles Pyle in an interview at the “INSIGHTS” conference at George Mason University about Virginia’s so-called Longitudinal Data System. “It’s right for parents to be concerned about privacy. We share that concern.”

Even before the recent revelations about far-reaching surveillance tactics by the National Security Agency, a furor was erupting in some parts of the country over the privacy concerns raised by similar data systems under development in many states.

The conference’s printed program sought to dispel myths about Virginia’s data system upfront. The state does not send student-level data to the federal government, and it does not collect information such as religious affiliation, political affiliation, voting records or medical records, it said.

“I don’t know of any longitudinal data systems that are using facial recognition,” said Kathleen Styles, chief privacy officer for the U.S. Education Department during her keynote speech at the conference.

Styles said her office recommends that states be transparent about the new systems. “Share with parents what data you are collecting and what you are doing with it,” she said.

She said her position was created following the publication of a 2009 Fordham University report that detailed many possible concerns, including states keeping more data than necessary on students and not having systems in place to purge old records, making them vulnerable to hackers.

The Virginia longitudinal data system, which was developed with help from a $17.5 million federal stimulus grant in 2009, allows agencies to share data so they can analyze how students progress through college and into the workforce and shape policies around the most successful routes.

Partner agencies so far are the Virginia Department of Education, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the Virginia Employment Commission, the Virginia Community College System and the Virginia Information Technologies Agency.

Agency officials worked with lawmakers and the state attorney general to create a system that would adhere to privacy laws.

They ultimately developed what they call a “federated” system, which means there is no centralized data base. Instead, agencies send requested student-data sets with randomly assigned codes in place of private information such as name and date of birth. A second random code is assigned after the data are merged with data from other agencies.

The system is already being used to calculate how much students “grow” or perform on state tests from year to year, information that can be included in teacher evaluations. It can be used to compile more detailed reports on who drops out and who graduates and where they go to college.

At the college level, the data can show how much biology majors at different colleges, for example, are earning in their first job after school.

There are still a lot of holes in the data — only students and employees who remain in the state can be followed. But Virginia officials hope the system will continue to grow. In the future, they want to link in early childhood data and more information about the workforce.

They also want to encourage researchers to access the data to help them improve graduation rates or prepare more students for college and careers.

Bethann Canada, the director of information management for Virginia’s Education Department, said officials are eager for new insights from people outside government.

“As bureaucrats we have one way of looking at things — for accountability purpose,” she said.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in Northern Virginia.
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