First Person

Voices: What election day meant for data and privacy in schools


Outgoing Jefferson County school board member Paula Noonan reflects on what the board election results there mean for the future of data collection and privacy in schools. 

stockmoreycomputerlab1On election week, Bill and Melinda Gates lost two big Colorado bets totaling $101 million.

First, their $1 million contribution to the pro-Amendment 66 campaign misfired when Coloradans voted 2-1 against raising their taxes to implement the new school finance act.

Then the Gates Foundation’s $100 million investment in inBloom, the data storage platform built by Rupert Murdoch’s company, took a twelfth round knock out punch in Jefferson County School District two days after the election.

Jeffco schools, a pilot district for inBloom, ended its inBloom partnership because the board majority lost on November 5. Dr. Cindy Stevenson, Jeffco superintendent and supporter of inBloom, also resigned, effective June 30.

Jeffco parents took on district over the “Big Data” inBloom project

The Colorado inBloom fight began publicly in March when Rachael Stickland, a Jeffco parent from the south area, addressed the school board about her concerns over personal student privacy and data security.

Her contention was that the Family Education Rights Privacy Act (FERPA) was gutted by the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan. Parents could no longer rely on FERPA to protect and secure their children’s personal student records from uses by entities not under the district’s supervision.

Stickland also argued that personal student records sent to inBloom’s Amazon “cloud storage” platform would be a big target for hackers eager to take Bill Gates down a notch. Other IT experts stated that managing the policy compliance and general security of such a project would be expensive and difficult.

InBloom loses support over privacy and security protections

Criticism of the project gathered momentum when the district would not disclose what personal student data would be sent to inBloom. Parents worried that disciplinary data would be released, so the district decided to hold back on that information.

Parents worried about released medical information, but the district needed to include medical data described in individual student education plans.

Parents worried that the district would sell their children’s data to third party education content providers allowed under new FERPA rules. The district agreed not to sell data, but sharing data remained on the table.

Jeffco parents asserted inBloom risks greater than benefits

The district conducted an “innovation tour” to describe the benefits of inBloom. The district held board study sessions and board business meetings on the subject. Lines were drawn between district staff and parents. The district argued that the benefits of reducing teacher data entry time, streamlining the district’s multitude of applications containing student records, and providing education content to individualize student learning was worth the risks of breached privacy or security.

Parents resisted, and the debate became deeper as issues over student assessment and testing, teacher assessment, big data, inBloom finances, foundations’ influence on education policy, a prospective data monopoly, and the purposes of collecting, aggregating, sharing, and mining personal student data by unsupervised third parties took over.

A politically diverse coalition of parents, mostly mothers in south Jeffco concerned about their children’s right to the privacy of their data collected from the time kids were in preschool until after they graduate from high school, pressed their case to the district and the pubic.

Parents won on election day

On election day, parents won. The change-over in the school district’s board sent a vehement message from Jeffco voters that they didn’t want inBloom storing Jeffco students’ data.

So now the district will build its data integration dashboard to help teachers reduce data entry and improve their information analysis, and it will store personal student records locally on district servers. InBloom is done in Jeffco.

On Wednesday, November 13, the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) and the State Board of Education also pulled the plug on the inBloom project.

Big data technology gets too far ahead of privacy policies

This dispute put a bright light on a large education policy gap in the state. Districts do not have adequate tools to address the privacy impacts of advanced technology now available to track every element of a student’s life for up to 16 years.

Especially dicey are the numerous new “behavior tracking” applications that can record kids while they’re misbehaving, email or text the recordings to parents or other individuals, and set up behavior management systems in classrooms. That’s a far distance from a principal’s call to a parent when Jimmy hits Johnny.

Parents also are objecting to the extensive testing and observations built into Teaching Strategies Gold, a pre-school to third grade assessment used in Jeffco that creates a developmental profile of each child based on 38 “objectives.” Assessments like TS Gold are likely to be next in the cross hairs of the big data wars.

CDE will develop new privacy policies

The CDE is taking some initiative to develop “best practice” privacy policies for review by the State Board of Education.  It is “to be decided” to what degree the department’s policy recommendations will meet parent standards.

It is also unclear to what degree the Gates Foundation will continue its funding of education projects in the state. What is clear is that some Jeffco parents yanked education policy away from Foundations and put it back into the hands of local school boards.  And as everyone in Colorado discovered on November 5, money doesn’t always talk.  Sometimes money takes a walk.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.