Leaders to push changes on student privacy, testing
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State political and educational leaders, responding to recent outcry from parents and educators, are pushing changes they say will protect privacy of students' school records and ease test pressures.
State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), chairman of the Senate's Education Committee, said Thursday he expects quick action after the legislature convenes in January on a measure clamping extra restrictions on release of students' test records to commercial contractors.
"As adults, whether it's you or me or anybody else, everyone wants their privacy," he said in an interview. "Whatever we want for ourselves, it grows exponentially when it comes to children."
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Flanagan said one possibility is passage of a state law or regulation that is equivalent to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, known as FERPA, a federal law that gives parents a degree of control over school records of children under age 18.
While details must be worked out, the chairman added any new law or regulation should be carefully crafted so local districts are not prevented from turning over data to private firms, as many now do, for such routine work as computerizing bus routes and class schedules.
Flanagan's prediction that some sort of privacy measure could be drafted by the time the legislature opens its new session marks the Senate leadership's first indication that it backs such a move. As the Senate's point man on education issues, he recently wrapped up a statewide series of public hearings on student testing and privacy issues that included a Sept. 17 session in Brentwood.
The Assembly, with a Democratic majority, passed two student privacy bills last spring. Assemb. Catherine Nolan (D-Ridgewood), who heads that chamber's Education Committee, said Thursday that she looks forward to working with Flanagan and state education officials in tightening security of student records.
The state education commissioner, John B. King Jr., added that he is open to joining in discussions of increased penalties for any firms found guilty of data-security breaches, however unlikely that might be.
Parents have driven home their worries about privacy both at the Senate hearings and at recent forums in East Setauket, Mineola and upstate that featured King and Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the state Board of Regents, which sets education policy.
Data depository a concern
One of parents' big concerns is a state plan to turn over records of 2.3 million New York students to inBloom Inc., a nonprofit corporation based in Atlanta that maintains a computerized "cloud"-based data depository. Supporters of the project say that it will help make data more easily available to parents themselves, and that no data will be released without permission from local school districts.
But parents have voiced fears that sensitive information such as disciplinary or health records could wind up in the hands of prospective employers or college admissions officers.
One parent leader, Jeanette Deutermann of North Bellmore, said Thursday she is heartened by Flanagan's assurances and hopeful that any new privacy law or regulation would go beyond provisions of the FERPA law, which many parents consider too weak.
"I would hope they would go further and not allow data to be turned over to inBloom," she said.
An inBloom spokesman, Adam Gaber, had no comment.
Another complaint from parents and teachers alike is that the state is overtesting students.
This week, the state Education Department clarified its plans for the next round of testing in April, advising regional school staffers that math tests to be administered in grades 3-8 would be 20 minutes shorter than assessments used last spring, with fewer questions.
In eighth grade, for example, the maximum time for completing math tests will be 80 minutes the first day, 80 minutes the second day and 90 minutes the third day. Last spring's times were 90 minutes each day.
Maximum time for English tests will remain the same as last spring, to allow ample time for completion, the department said. However, students in grades 5-8 will be allowed to leave testing areas 10 minutes earlier on one day than they did last spring, if everyone in the class completes the exam in less than the time allowed.
April tests shortened
The department is shortening April tests by removing some "trial" questions that are not scored immediately, but are included to see if they should be used, for real, in later assessments. Questions removed will be administered to relatively small samples of students during separate field testing in June, not as part of regular April assessments.
Some parent and school representatives across the state have acknowledged the department's efforts to scale back testing a bit. Those leaders added, however, that public complaints over state policy are unlikely to be stilled unless the department makes far more significant changes in its approach.
"Positive, yes," Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said Thursday of the test modifications. "Substantial, no, not by itself."