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Let's Pause Before Tennessee Collects More Data on Its Students


Today there is a lot of pressure on educators to provide more and more data on their students.  The recently released SCORE Report by former Senator Bill Frist on improving Tennessee’s education system calls for more and better data on students.  President Barack Obama has provided significant funding for states to begin collecting more data on students and then linking the data to other data sets such as higher education records and labor records.

This creates a lot of concern for those of us who represent students and are committed to their privacy.  The federal government has laws in place to protect student privacy.  Those laws, however, are open to interpretation and are somewhat vague on important issues. Tennessee already collects extensive data on its students, from Social Security Numbers to academic and disciplinary records. Consequently, it is critical that the State pause before it rushes forward to collect more data and link that information to all kinds of data sets throughout the nation.

There should be a clear purpose for why the data are being collected.  Let’s not just collect more information because we can or because the funds are now available to do so.   Clear and precise research questions should be developed so those questions can be openly debated and then the data collected can be restricted to only answering those questions considered proper and legitimate.  When it comes to collecting data we need to ask:  What do we want to know? Why do we want to know it? And what policy adjustments might be made to improve the lives of our citizens? Is there existing information available that can answer our questions?

This past October, the Center on Law and Information Policy of Fordham Law School issued a study examining statewide data collection systems.  They found nearly all states, including Tennessee, have not dealt thoroughly enough in ensuring the protection of student data.  They offer some additional recommendations for states to consider.

First, the study recommends that states should create systems that highly protect any information that can identify a particular student.  No one wants to read in the paper about how their child’s identifiable data was lost because a laptop was stolen or a flash drive was lost.

Second, since Tennessee uses third-party companies to process the information they collect, they should have clear agreements on how these companies will protect and secure data.  Everyone should be held accountable for how they use information on our children.


Third, states should limit the data collected to only absolutely necessary information.  There is no need to collect unnecessary data just because someone thinks they may need it for some undetermined future purpose.

Fourth, states should tell us how long they are going to keep the information and how they will destroy it once the research is complete.  There is no good reason to keep data on students forever. 

Fifth, there should be clear rules about when information can be accessed and how it may be used.  We cannot put enough effort into establishing sufficient restrictions on access to the data to protect the privacy of our children. 

Sixth, audits and logs should be kept on exactly who accessed the data and precisely what they did with the information.  This will help to ensure that the use is appropriate for the purpose for which it has been collected.

Seventh, all of these policies should be posted where everyone can have access to them.  The public should know what is being collected on our children and what policies have been put into place to protect it.  As well, the public should know who has access to the information and what they are doing with it.

Finally, states should appoint a Chief Privacy Officer whose sole job is to protect our students’ privacy and ensure that there is full compliance to all security and privacy policies.

Whether or not states should be collecting data on its citizens from womb to the grave is highly debatable.   But since Tennessee is currently collecting huge amount of data on our students these minimum recommendations should be strongly considered before additional data are collected. 

Dr. Claude Pressnell