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U.S. Department of Education Proposes Updates to Student Privacy Law; Decision Could Impact Data Collection at All Levels

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"The results have been federal policies unnecessarily at war with themselves; a serious chilling effect on the development and use of robust state data systems; and the persistence of widespread misunderstanding of FERPA."

The sensitive issue of protecting student privacy made headlines last month when the U.S. Department of Education (ED) proposed updates to the federal student privacy law known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

FERPA was enacted in 1974 to limit the disclosure of student records and protect students’ privacy. Since that time, the emergence of state longitudinal data systems, which can manage large data sets securely, and the demand for better research and analysis have created new questions for state and local education officials and education researchers related to student data and privacy.

The Data Quality Campaign (DQC), a national collaborative effort to encourage and support state policymakers to improve the collection, availability, and use of education data, summarized some of these issues in its brief, “Maximizing the Power of Education Data while Ensuring Compliance with Federal Student Privacy Laws.” As it explains, “Policymakers, educators and researchers need statewide longitudinal data systems capable of providing timely, valid and relevant data.” It also addresses some of the potential problems with FERPA, such as whether the act permits schools and local educational agencies, without parental consent, to provide students’ education records to a statewide longitudinal data system, and whether state data systems are permitted to redisclose those student records to research organizations or schools.

There has been widespread frustration with both the lack of clarity from ED on how to reconcile this and other new dynamics with the current law and, in some cases, with ED’s narrow interpretations of the law that some believe have negatively affected efforts to improve data collection, reporting, and use. As the DQC’s April newsletter notes, “The results have been federal policies unnecessarily at war with themselves; a serious chilling effect on the development and use of robust state data systems; and the persistence of widespread misunderstanding of FERPA.”

Although the proposed regulations include some positive changes, there are a number of areas that appear to need additional clarification or additions. Such areas include provisions related to state data systems entering into research agreements with third parties, sharing of data between K-12 and postsecondary data systems, and sharing data with social service and employment agencies.

Stakeholders have the opportunity to weigh in on these issues by providing formal comments to the U.S. Department of Education by May 8. In addition, on Wednesday, April 23, the DQC will be hosting a webinar to review the regulations and proposed comments to address these and other concerns.

For more information about FERPA and the upcoming webinar, visit the DQC’s website at http://www.dataqualitycampaign.org/policy_implication/ferpa.cfm.

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