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Report on Privacy and Security of State Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDSs)

As EDUCAUSE reported in April, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) posted a notice of proposed rule-making (NPRM) that would revise regulations under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The proposed changes would increase the capacity for the sharing of student data records under FERPA in relation to statewide longitudinal data systems (SLDSs). This proposed expansion of permissible data sharing, which includes an expansion of both the purposes for which sharing may be allowed as well as the "authorized representatives" with whom individual student records might be shared, is intended to enhance the usefulness of SLDSs for the purposes of analyzing the effectiveness of educational programs based on student outcomes such as college readiness and employment.

Today (May 23, 2011) was the deadline for submitting comments on the NPRM, and many organizations and higher education associations have taken the opportunity to express often widely divergent views about the authority of ED to issue the proposed regulations as well as the advisability of doing so. However, the responding organizations universally agree with the importance of securing the privacy of students' personally identifiable information, even if they differ in thinking ED's proposed regulations will actually do so. Thus, a report released in October 2009 by the Fordham University Center on Law and Information Policy (CLIP) is particularly interesting, given that it reviews the state of the privacy and security safeguards of SLDSs.

Entitled Children's Educational Records and Privacy: A Study of Elementary and Secondary School State Reporting Systems, the report highlights the degree to which SLDSs in many states collect data elements of a private and sensitive nature, such as students' pregnancies, mental health issues, and jail sentences, without providing adequate protections for privacy and security (e.g., clear access and use rules, data retention policies). The report suggests some best practices for consideration from the states it did find to have robust privacy and security processes in relation to SLDSs, such as the use of dual database architectures between local and state education agencies that allow for the sharing of data at the individual record level while maintaining the anonymity of the individual student.

Through the Higher Education Information Security Council (HEISC), a joint program of EDUCAUSE and Internet2, the higher education IT community has developed a strong knowledge base of principles, processes, guidelines, and other resources on data privacy and security that may help in assessing and responding to the issues raised in the CLIP report. Postsecondary institutions, systems, agencies, and others interested in these issues are encouraged to make use of HEISC materials to inform SLDS developments in their states as well as possibly across states.