By CHRIS EBERHART
The Eastchester school district chose to opt out of Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion federal grant program created to spur educational renovation, instead of disclosing students’ personal information that otherwise would’ve been required as part of the New York State Regents Reform.
Newly-appointed Eastchester Superintendent Dr. Walter Moran said he forfeited $4,000 worth of
federal grant money the district would’ve received for the 2013-2014 school year from Race to the Top to keep his students’ information private.
“The district and the East-chester Board of Education feel the issue of student privacy is paramount and this gesture communicates the level of our concern to the state Education Department,” Moran said.
Easchester is one of 28 school districts in Westcheser County to drop out of Race to the Top to avoid sending students’ information to the state.
“Many districts in this area share our concerns and are proactively trying to bring about change in how the [New York State] Education Department proposes to store student data,” Moran said. “A large majority of districts in our region have also dropped out of Race to the Top.”
All school districts that will continue to participate in the federal grant program are required by the New York State Education Department to relay personally identifiable student information—which includes demographic information, academic and discipline history, student disabilities and parental contact information—to the state to be stored in a data portal inBloom, also referred to as EngageNY portal.
The data portal is a statewide database that stores students’ information and then uses the information as part of a data driven inquiry, which is a precise and systematic approach to improving student learning.
According to the EngageNY portal fact sheet, the idea behind the data driven inquiry is to provide information that allows parents and teachers to catch early warning signs of a student that might not finish high school and to track the student’s progress in relation to their career goals.
However, parents, teachers and students are not the only ones with access to the database.
Third-party vendors that are contracted with the state—such as data dashboards Connect EDU, eScholar and NCS Pearson/Schoolnet—will also be granted access to information without state and/or parent authorization.
Lisa Rudley, co-founder of the parent advocate group New York State Allies for Public Eduation that was created in response to Common Core, compared ConnectEDU to the online dating website eHarmony.
“Based off the collected information,” Rudley said, “ConnectEDU matches a student with a college and career path.”
Exemptions to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act broadened in 2011 now allow third parties to access “directory information,” which includes a student’s name, address, photograph and date of birth, without any authorization, which Rudley said is the main issue.
“Parents should have the option to opt out of the data collection or to have their child’s informatin removed,” Rudley said. “If a parent gives consent, then it’s a whole different ball game.”
Similarly, Superintendent Moran is worried about the lack of protection of students’ information.
Eastchester school district spokesperson Mary Ellen Byrne wrote a letter to parents on behalf of Moran saying, “inBloom Inc. has stated it cannot guarantee the security of the information stored…or that the information will not be intercepted when it is being transmitted. This leaves me very concerned about the security of personal data and the potential risks involved with having confidential information transferred and stored by a private company.”
Moran said, although the Eastchester school district opted out of Race to the Top, it is still mandated by the state to partake in standardized testing in grades three through eight and the pending computer-based testing initiative in 2015, as well as implement the Common Core Learning Standards and the new teacher evaluation system.
The Common Core, which focuses on analytical thinking and real world application of problems, utilizes standardized tests to evaluate a student’s readiness for high school and a teacher’s effectiveness.
The Common Core along with the data driven inquiry component of Regents Reform—new state standards that school districts are required to implement—have been controversial topics since its implementation last year, with most of the scrutiny directed at the collection of students’ information and excessive standardized tests.
New York State Allies for Public Education, is calling for New York State Education Commissioner John King’s resignation.And some high-raking state officials have also been critical of the Common Core standards.
State Democratic legislators like Amy Paulin, Thomas Abinanti and David Buchwald sent a letter to the Board of Regents asking them to slow down Common Core’s implementation.
Most of the letter spoke about the excessive standardized tests, but Paulin told The Eastchester Review the data collection was “disturbing” and said she “doesn’t see a point in it.”