The explosion was sudden. No one was talking about student data privacy in 2013. But the following year, according to the Data Quality Campaign, 36 state legislatures introduced 110 bills on the topic. That number rose to 182 bills in 46 states in 2015, prompting pundits to declare, “Student data privacy is the new Internet safety.”

NASSP shed some light on the issue in early 2015 with its own position statement—drawn from the experience of principals—aimed at delivering educational services to students. In short, the NASSP statement embraces the power of data to propel school improvement; identify students’ particular needs; and influence education policy, practice, and research. NASSP is not so keen on the use of student data for marketing purposes.

Fortunately, other stakeholder voices are gradually being added to the discussion as well. In September, the Future of Privacy Forum issued a report titled “Beyond the Fear Factor,” which shares parent survey results on student data privacy. The survey asked parents of K–12 students to identify their goals and fears about the use of technology and student data. The findings are consistent with NASSP’s position.

What do parents know about the use of technology in schools?

According to the survey, 76 percent of parents said they believe they are very aware of the kinds of technology being used in their child’s school. Most parents said they feel that they understand what data are being collected and how they are used. The results of the survey demonstrate a strong baseline of knowledge and communication between schools and parents.

When do parents support access to and use of student data within schools or the educational system?

The vast majority of parents expressed comfort with using student data to improve teaching and learning (97 percent support using data to improve grades and 94 percent support using it to improve attendance). However, parents want a strong justification of administrative need or educational benefit for using student data. For example, 42 percent of parents oppose schools giving student data to private companies or using it for commercial purposes. They do, however, express more support for providing data to researchers (63 percent said so) to propel school improvement efforts.

What do parents see as benefits from additional uses of student data?

Parents support many uses of individual and aggregate-level student data to improve education. According to the survey, parents strongly favor using individual student data to identify struggling students in need of additional support (84 percent said so) and to personalize the learning process (79 percent said so), especially when data is reviewed by the principal (89 percent) or teachers (89 percent). Seventy-​eight percent of parents support using aggregate-​level student data to improve teacher instruction and to hold teachers and schools accountable for effectiveness in the classroom.

Where do parents stand on the creation of electronic education records amid security concerns?

While most parents worry about student data being hacked or misused, more than seven in 10 (71 percent) support the creation of electronic education records for their child as long as those records are properly protected. Parental support increases when adults know that schools are required to ensure student data security (85 percent supported this measure) and when parents are told that student data can only be used for educational purposes (87 percent supported this use of data). 

What protections do parents want? What do they know about existing laws and policies?

A majority of parents (77 percent) say they know nothing about existing federal and state laws regulating the use of student data. This finding may explain why parents’ top recommendation for ensuring student data privacy is the adoption of new laws—57 percent supported this solution. Parents also want companies to adopt better contracting practices and provide enforceable privacy policies. 

Parents are very aware of technology and student data use in schools. While they—like principals—are eager for the individual learning benefits that educational data can provide, parents are also concerned about the security of their child’s personal information. Principals should continue to embrace the opportunity to work with parents as partners in addressing these issues and maintaining the delicate balance between data privacy and the learning benefits of data access. 

Sidebar: NASSP’s Recommendations to Federal Policymakers on Student Data Privacy

As noted in this article, NASSP issued its own position statement on student data privacy in 2015. In this statement, NASSP outlines specific recommendations for federal policymakers on the issue of student data privacy:

  • Review policies on the use of student data to ensure they balance privacy protection with the need to improve teaching and learning.
  • Require all entities that collect and/or store sensitive student data to maintain a comprehensive security program that is designed to protect the security, privacy, confidentiality, and integrity of personally identifiable information against risks.
  • Provide guidance to states regarding the collection, storage, security protections, and destruction of student data.
  • Provide funding to states and districts to help them address privacy issues related to student data, including training and professional development for educators, technology capacity, and technical support.
  • Ensure that personal information and online learning activities are not used to target noneducation-related advertising to students or their families.
  • Limit nonconsensual access to personally identifiable student data to school, district, or state educational agency employees and to authorized service providers under their direct control.

Bob Farrace is the director of public affairs at NASSP.