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Data fears aired before State Board

The effort to build the next generation of student data systems is either “transformational” or ripe for “abuse.”

Those were some of the contrasting views expressed Thursday at a State Board of Education study session on inBloom, a data system that is being pilot tested in the Jefferson County Schools and a handful of districts around the nation. The state Department of Education also is a participant.

The $100 million project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corp., is attempting to build a data system that can aggregate student personal and academic information and link such data with online instructional materials that teachers can use to personalize teaching for individual student needs.

“It’s a great leap forward for teachers and classrooms and children,” Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson told the board. She used the example of math class studying a particular unit, explaining that a teacher could pull up data about an individual student’s work in that area and also receive specific suggestions for improving the student’s performance.

Stevenson also stressed the importance of integrating data. “Our teachers have all the data in the world now, but it’s on different systems.”

But the inBloom project has sparked concerns about privacy and the security of student information, both in Jeffco and elsewhere around the nation, including New York City.

“While we understand the value of data for personalized learning, there are too few safeguards,” said Khaliah Barnes, a lawyer with the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. She cited a “growing risk that third parties would have access to sensitive student information.”

In a high-tech touch, Barnes both observed the study session and testified via a two-way video hookup.

The harshest criticism came from board member Debora Scheffel, a Republican from Parker. “Any time you centralize information there’s potential for abuse. I think the potential for abuse is substantial. … This to me is just another vehicle to centralize teaching. … I’m sorry Colorado is part of this pilot.”

The two-hour session was dominated by discussion of security issues, with less time spent on inBloom’s educational potential.

“Job number one for us is the security of the data,” said Sharren Bates, an executive of the Atlanta-based non-profit. She also stressed repeatedly that it’s up to school districts to decide what data to enter into the system, which holds the information in encrypted form on third-party servers.

Greg Mortimer, Jeffco’s chief information officer, also defended the security of the system.

But Barnes suggested that tighter controls are needed. “We encourage Colorado to make it a policy to limited the data available to inBloom,” adding that changes in state law might be necessary. “Colorado should take this opportunity to pass legislation concerning inBloom and other data collection companies.”

The privacy center is currently suing the U.S. Department of Education over rule changes that gave contractors greater access to student data if they work for school districts.

Another controversy about new data systems is whether parents should be able to opt out. Jeffco citizens who oppose inBloom have asked for the ability to do that.

Stevenson and others oppose the idea. “Opting out makes the system not as effective” because it creates gaps in the data, she said.

SBE member Marcia Neal, a Republican from Grand Junction, struck a nuanced note as the hearing neared its end. “I don’t think we can say no, we’re not going to do it because someone will use it incorrectly. It’s the modern world, and we need to find a way to do it effectively.”

The inBloom system isn’t currently up and running in Jeffco, according to district officials. The pilot project, which doesn’t cost participating districts anything, runs through the end of next year, at which time the system should be finished. Then the district will have to decide whether it wants to continue using inBloom for a fee.

Mortimer roughly estimated the cost of such a system at between $2 and $5 per student a year, or about $170,000 to $425,000 for Jeffco. He said using inBloom would be less expensive for the district than building and maintaining its own comparable system.