South Orangetown Joins Districts Oppposing State's Data Demands

Hudson Valley school officials are leading the pushback against student information collection.

South Orangetown Central School District Superintendent Dr. Ken Mitchell
South Orangetown Central School District Superintendent Dr. Ken Mitchell

Alarm continues to grow among local parents and school officials about the student data New York state is collecting and analyzing as part of its multi-million dollar Race to the Top project.

The South Orangetown Central School Distict Board of Education unanimously voted to approve Superintendent Dr. Ken Mitchell's recommendation to opt out of the "Race to the Top" grant program Nov. 7. 

Mitchell addressed the decision in a blog entry on the SOCSD website here. As with many other educators in districts that have either opted out or raised questions, Mitchell cited concerns with violations of student privacy. He wrote about the potential for future misuse of the data. 

"We are concerned that the collection of data for purposes of accountability may encroach upon individual privacy and potentially exceed that which is most essential for pursuing our instructional agenda," Mitchell wrote.. "As district leaders we are responsible for protecting our students and staff. Without adequate and unequivocal assurances, we must take a position to oppose or delay any initiative that poses potential risk for those we represent."

South Orangetown joins a swelling list of Hudson Valley districts. Pearl River, Pleasantville, Rye Neck, Pelham, Pocantico Hills, Hastings-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry and Mount Pleasant are among those who have taken official action to either withdraw from Race to the Top, refused to connect with EngageNY, the state's portal to a vast database, or voiced strong concerns about privacy issues. 

Clarkstown Schools will consider potential action at a board of education meeting tonight. The Lakeland school district will consider withdrawing at its Nov. 21 meeting. 

One specific concern raised is the possible inclusion of data related to individual student discipline.

"Now they are going to forward the data to a private company called inBloom, which will manipulate the data and produce reports for the school district and parents," Pearl River Superintendent Dr. John Morgano said when the district board of education voted to opt out of Race to the Top Oct. 31. "One of the issues the superintendents had was the data dashboard, the vehicle we will use to view the data, has one feature for student discipline. The state has never asked for individual student discipline (before). You don't have a dashboard option for that unless you intend to use it. That alone was reason enough for great concern, I believe.

To cope with this growing opposition, the New York State Education Department has updated its EngageNY Portal: Data Security and Privacy Fact Sheet

SED spokesman Tom Dunn said the objections do not accurately reflect the portal content, and steered Patch to the state's updated "data dictionary" that describes every piece of information requested or mandated, and the category it fits in. 

Part of the problem is the amount of information on students that the state collects: test scores, of course, but also disciplinary records, economic and social data.

The other part of the problem is the $100 million database. Called inBloom, it's a national project—funded largely by the Gates Foundation—aimed at helping educators improve student performance. New York's Race to the Top program will be storing all its student data in inBloom and making it accessible through a "dashboard" so that information can be more easily accessed by educators and parents and compared across schools and communities.

South Orangetown will be exercising its option to have InBloom delete its student data from the Shared Learning Infrastructure. Morgano has asked the Pearl River board of education for approval to write a letter asking InBloom to delete student data from the district.

School officials who've been sending mounds of data to the state for years are balking at inBloom. It's being built to be used by other states too, and because the data will be shared with other groups that work to help students, such as social services agencies, companies that create standardized tests, or law enforcement agencies. And the data is shared with third-party vendors who work with schools on information management. Officials worry that the student information will not stay private and could be misused.

"The data dashboard required by the State Education Department is both redundant and, through inclusion of personally identifiable information such as discipline flags, immunization shots, attendance, and more, could violate students’ privacy rights,"Pleasantville Superintendent Mary Fox-Alter said last month when her school board withdrew.

Mitchell also questioned requiring districts to use the data management product even though they already had something similar in place. Districts were told they had to accept it, though they do not have to use it. Mitchell said troubled him for multiple reasons, including the waste of money by the state.

"The state is encroaching into local management of schools by mandating services that will inevitably generate costs without state funding as we have seen with the original Race to the Top mandate that has cost us $400 for every dollar we received," Mitchell wrote.

A growing number of parents are also pushing for change. They're gathering on a Facebook page called NY Parents Opposed to Data Sharing without Consent!

A blog called NoDataNY published a post Nov. 3 summing up their position:

"This is positively Orwellian!  When little Johnny gets suspended for fighting in 7th grade (regardless of whether or not he was simply defending himself), his suspension will follow him for the rest of his adult life? – College admissions reps, potential employers (“workforce development organizations”), criminal justice agencies – etc…  The potential for abuse is too risky."

Opting out of New York's Race to the Top program does not remove a district's obligation to provide student data to the state. Much of the reporting requirements are federal. Moreover, most of the data is already stored by the state: Whether a student is an English language learner; a student's racial or ethnic background—educators have parsed this data for decades to ensure equity and opportunity. "Third-party vendors" are used by school districts every day to deal with data—attendance, for example. 

Opting out does mean the district won't get the fourth year of the federal Race to the Top grant money. But losing money is not an issue for the wealthier suburban districts in this region, which didn't receive a lot under Race to the Top. Hastings-on-Hudson, for example, has received $1,189, money that has gone directly to the network at the Southern Westchester Board of Cooperative Education Services.

“I do not see any real benefit to Hastings, but I do have concerns with the risks to our student data," said Roy Montesano, Hastings superintendent. The Hastings school trustees voted Nov. 6 to scrap a memorandum of understanding the Board of Education signed with the state Department of Education on May 27, 2010. 

What withdrawing does do is deny parent and educator access to the EngageNY Portal through one of the "dashboards" set up to parse and present the data. 

"Currently, students and their families do not have the ability to review a student’s complete educational records stored by the State. The EngageNY Portal will provide students and their families with the ability to review this statewide information and ensure its accuracy," according to SED's data privacy fact sheet for parents. 

Morgano said he was concerned that the state could choose a dashboard for districts that waited till after the Oct. 31 deadline to opt out of Race to the Top.

Harry Philips, a member of the Board of Regents, which oversees education in the state, said he thought some of the concerns were based on misinformation or misunderstanding. "I recommend everyone read the privacy rules," said Philips, who represents the lower Hudson Valley. 

While districts upstate and on Long Island are also increasingly confronting state officials on this issue, Westchester and Rockland counties are at the forefront, said David Albert, director of communications and research at the New York State School Boards Association. 

"Most of the activity we've seen is in the Hudson Valley at this point," Albert said. "But that doesn't mean there won't be more districts down the road that will pass these resolutions."


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