Student Data Mining: Pros, Cons and Protests

(Editors Note: This is the first of a two-part post regarding mining the data of school children in New York State, and educators’ concerns regarding how that practice is being put into effect. Part II of the post runs tomorrow.)

Recently, I attended the One Voice Rally with my father, a chemistry teacher of more than 20 years. Teachers there were protesting numerous travesties in New York State education, and among them was the amassing of educational and personal information of students into one large digital database.


As a recent graduate of the iSchool at Syracuse and in an era of big data analytics, I did not find it particularly shocking that the government is collecting information on school children. I recognize that the intent of this technological initiative is to make it easier for educators to access records to more easily identify students’ academically weak areas, and I know that centralized data is needed to achieve this. What I did find shocking was that the state is doing this without parental or student consent, and may be giving a third party access to mine that private information.

News sources and advocacy groups allege that highly private information is to be collected–not just standardized test scores or student disciplinary records–and that the database may reside in the cloud.

Parents, educators and privacy advocates are protesting due to privacy and security concerns, worried that their children’s private data being stolen (the case of a security breach), and that the government is releasing the data to third parties without oversight or parental knowledge. Both parents and teachers are concerned that this sensitive information may be treated as a commodity and released to third parties (and at the profit of New York State officials).

Common Core Connection

The foundations for a central student database were laid by New York State’s common core standards and the adoption of a massive and rigorous statewide testing infrastructure.

Adopted in 2010, the common core standards are expected to be fully implemented by school year 2013-2014. The standards promote outcome-based standardization of education, mandating educational objectives/standards and requiring standardized tests to ensure students are achieving material at the level (and in the way) the federal government has outlined.

Critics claim the state pledged to the standards before they were even fully written and with no analysis as to long-term impact and effectiveness for the state’s children. They say generous federal funding for common core standards, a Race-To-The-Top ideology, and the horrendous failure of No Child Left Behind (and nothing to do with children) motivated such quick adoption.

According to the Common Core website the purpose of the standards are to improve education by providing:

“…a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.”


Now, privacy concerns of parents and teachers about the security of their children’s private information are pitting many of them against the New York State Education Department. Parents are especially upset that the state did not ask their consent, and that parents cannot opt students out of the database or not have a child’s information mined. The fact that New York is not reaching out to parents and seemingly cares so little about parents’ privacy concerns is troubling.

Despite my research, I am unclear as to how explicit and personal the data collected will be. Advocacy groups claim it will go as far as blood type, religious affiliation, income level, and dental records.

(Read more about how this initiative is moving forward, and third-party organizer inBloom’s response to critics, in tomorrow’s Information Space post on this topic, Part II.)


Dorotea Szkolar

I am an alumna of the iSchool MLIS program and am mainly interested in writing about technology and libraries. Contact me at doroteaszkolar@gmail.com or @doroteaszkolar if you would like to chat.

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