News: CJ Exclusives

Gold Mine of Student Data Helpful, But Includes Risks

Project will help researchers follow students throughout school career

RALEIGH — What high school curriculum best prepares a student for college? Which majors yield the highest-paying jobs? Does being held back in kindergarten ultimately help or hurt lifelong educational performance?

A new data collection program may provide the necessary long-term information to answer such questions. One of the biggest challenges to implementing the system will be providing researchers with access to the data that could answer policy questions while protecting students’ rights to privacy.

The new program is the Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems Grant Program, a project of the U.S. Department of Education. It provides grants and services to help states design, develop, implement, and expand their individual longitudinal data systems — that is, data that follow individual students from preschool to the work force.

Since 2005, 47 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands received SLDS grants. Since its inception, the program has disbursed $362 million in grants. North Carolina received $6 million in 2007 for two projects and $3.6 million in 2012 for “The NC P-20W SLDS Project: Creating a Preschool to Workforce Statewide Longitudinal Data System in North Carolina.”

For North Carolina’s universities, which provide key parts of the data, such as graduation rates, the SLDS grants won’t change which data are collected, just how they are used. Data on student performance and demographics already are collected from many offices at each campus. A new system called Student Data Mart will streamline data from the 17 campuses into one easy-to-access repository. That repository will be one part of the overall longitudinal system.

Dr. Daniel Cohen-Vogel, senior director of institutional research for the UNC system’s general administration, explained Data Mart’s main objective. “Right now, we spend about 80 percent of our time on data collection and quality control and 20 percent on analysis. We want to reverse those numbers.”

If the new system is transparent, it will be a gold mine for social science research. Knowing the annual academic performance of each child in the state from preschool on will give researchers a powerful tool to investigate long-term educational outcomes that previously were impossible to track.

Serious privacy concerns exist, however. In order to follow students from preschool to the work force, students must be identifiable. This means each student will have an ID number assigned to his or her name. At some level, that information is recorded and warehoused.

The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects the privacy of student education records. But personal data must also be protected from being leaked, sold, or hacked.

Even when precautions are in place, data breaches happen. In November, UNC-Chapel Hill announced a data breach potentially affecting more than 6,000 current and former students, vendors, and employees, In December, the state auditor’s office issued a critical report on the university’s financial reporting system, saying that the university’s general administration has “not clearly defined responsibilities related to long-term preservation of data, creating an elevated risk of losing historical student and financial data.”

At the same time, privacy concerns must be balanced with access.

There are sizable barriers to access. The most widely used source for data on North Carolina’s K-12 system is the North Carolina Education Research Data Center at Duke University. The Data Center provides what it calls “ready access” to data needed for policy research. But that access requires a seven-to-nine step process and access to an Institutional Review Board, which is a research oversight body that most universities have but other groups, such as nonprofits, may not. North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction provides access to the aggregated information, but not to the level of detail that researchers need to address most policy questions.

North Carolina’s longitudinal data presents an opportunity, but also a risk. If the risks are addressed, and the data are accessible, new data can help to answer important questions about higher education. And North Carolina could be a model to other states.

Jenna Ashley Robinson is director of outreach at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.