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State Ed turns to BOCES to track student data

Fri, Apr 4th 2014 02:00 pm

 Gary Stern, The Journal News:    April 4, 2014

State education officials have started urgent talks with BOCES about storing and crunching student data now that lawmakers have forced the state to drop plans for using a privately run data-cloud.

The Education Department needs to move quickly since it is obligated to make data accessible to teachers and parents before its federal Race to the Top contract expires in about 15 months, department spokesman Dennis Tompkins said.

"We're reviewing what steps we can take with an eye on the clock," he said. "We have to have something in place, available for districts to use."

New York planned to work with inBloom, a non-profit company, to store identifiable student records that parents and teachers could access through a portal system. But the state Legislature eliminated that option as part of this year's state budget, responding to an outcry of concern from parents and educators about student privacy and the long-term security of the data.

So the state is now turning to its BOCES system to replace inBloom, as many educators in the Lower Hudson Valley desired. The Board of Cooperative Educational Services operates 12 "regional information centers" across New York, which provide technology services to school districts and could play a key role in developing a data system.

Dennis Lauro, executive director the Lower Hudson Regional Information Center, which serves districts in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties, took part in preliminary talks with state officials by telephone Thursday morning.

"We are prepared and can do it," Lauro said.

New York's Race to the Top contract, worth almost $700 million for the state, expires next year. The Education Department has spent about $388 million so far, Tompkins said. He did not want to speculate whether the federal government could take back funds at some point or penalize New York in another way should the state not meet its obligations.

In March, a federal education official noted that Georgia lost $10 million last year for not making promised reforms.

In seeking federal cash, New York promised that it would use data to spot at-risk students and that teachers would use it to tailor instruction for students.

The Legislature this week tore up a key piece of the state's educational policy by prohibiting the use of private companies to store student data while specifying that BOCES can do so.

"We could not let what happened with the Common Core happen with student data because the stakes are too high," said Sen. David Carlucci, D-New City, Rockland County, who sought to stop the inBloom project. "We don't know how what we're doing today will impact a child 20 or 30 years from now. We have to be conscious that technology is evolving at a rapid pace so we can monitor change and act quickly."

Carlucci said BOCES is well positioned to use data for educational purposes while giving districts tighter control over their records.

"We don't have to recreate the wheel when BOCES can do what it does best," he said.

Joel Reidenberg, a Fordham Law School professor, released a much-discussed study in December that found that school districts, under federal law, should maintain control over student data. He said the problem with New York's inBloom project was that the state was taking control of the data.

"The schools would have been out of the loop," he said.

Reidenberg was not familiar with how BOCES is organized, but said the model could work if "it gives school districts a say in what happens to the data, unlike the state's previous arrangement."

He said state legislatures across the country are quickly becoming interested in student privacy issues. Reidenberg said he likes components of New York's new law that will force the Education Department to appoint a chief privacy officer and create a parents "bill of rights" for data privacy and security. He also likes that the law spells out which identifiable information the state can collect and "stakes a firm line" on student data not being sold for commercial purposes.

The Westchester Putnam School Boards Association pushed state officials to better use the regional information centers rather than shipping student records to inBloom.

"Hopefully, going forward, our leaders in Albany will craft something that reinforces the good in using student data to inform learning while protecting student privacy," said Susan Elion Wollin, president of the bi-county School Boards Association. "That is what we wanted."