New Rules Would Allow for Broader Sharing of Student Records

April 08, 2011

The Department of Education will release new rules today that will make it easier for states to develop data systems to track students' academic progress and evaluate education programs.

The proposed new rules would allow high-school administrators and state officials to share student-level data with researchers, auditors, and other agencies without violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, or Ferpa.

The changes are being welcomed by education reformers but criticized by privacy advocates, who fear they could undermine longstanding student protections. Under Ferpa, colleges must generally obtain a student's consent to release data from an education record.

In an effort to strike a balance between privacy and accountability, the department has hired a chief privacy officer and created a technical-assistance center to advise states, schools, and colleges on privacy and data security.

But critics of the rule say such efforts won't do enough to protect students in the face of expanded data-sharing.

"Hiring a chief privacy officer is like hiring a curator for a museum that you've just allowed to be looted," said Barmak Nassirian, an associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

The expansion of state student-record systems is central to President Obama's accountability agenda, which seeks to improve education through the better use of data. In a statement issued on Thursday, the U.S. secretary of education, Arne Duncan, said the proposed new rules would "strengthen privacy protections and allow for meaningful uses of data."

Congress barred the Education Department from creating a national "unit record" data system in 2008, citing privacy concerns. But lawmakers have provided millions of dollars to help states develop such systems, including $250-million in the economic-stimulus bill.

Supporters of the new rule say Ferpa has hampered states' efforts to develop data systems because states and schools are unsure about what information they can share under the law. They say the rule will provide much-needed clarity about how student records can be used.

"We can't afford not to use this information if we want to meet our big policy goal of graduating students ready for college and careers," said Aimee R. Guidera, director of the Data Quality Campaign, a coalition of nonprofits that helps states develop longitudinal data systems.

The Education Department is accepting comments on the rules through May 23.