Much has been written about the dangers of the proposed Strengthening Education Through Research Act (SETRA), especially the bill’s extension of student data-collection to socioemotional data. But parents should realize the broader privacy problems with government-sponsored education “research.”
Student data-privacy is supposedly protected on the federal level by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). In 2012, however, the U.S. Department of Education (USED) gutted FERPA via Obama administration regulation. Among other outrages, the new regulation allows USED (and other entities) to take student personally identifiable information they receive from states or educational institutions and redisclose that data to researchers, without obtaining consent from or even notifying the entities that provided the data in the first place.
So as long as someone claims to be doing research “to improve instruction, administer student aid programs, or develop, validate, or administer predictive tests,” and signs an agreement promising with all his heart to protect confidentiality, he has a good shot of getting his hands on personally identifiable student data. The relaxation of FERPA protections creates dangers that highly personal student data will be shared among interested “researchers” – and neither the students nor their parents would have any idea this is happening.
According to data-privacy expert Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, “’research’ has become the easiest incantation by which virtually anyone could get direct access” to personally identifiable information.
A case in point is presented in a May 2, 2016 announcement from USED that it plans to “offer other federal agencies and affiliated researchers data access to conduct research that can inform and advance policies and practices that support students’ postsecondary success and strengthen repayment outcomes for borrowers.” Highly sensitive financial information about students and their families will be opened up to other government agencies to allow them to “match administrative student aid data files with other survey and administrative data . . . .”
Jane Robbins is an attorney and a senior fellow with the American Principles Project. Emmett McGroarty is the executive director of APP Education.