The name of infamous whistle-blower Edward Snowden was dropped in a seemingly odd place recently.
Molly O'Holleran of North Platte, a member of the Nebraska Board of Education, invoked his name at a board meeting.
Snowden, who disclosed the National Security Agency's dubious data collection, is an example of what can go wrong when someone gets access to data and chooses to unethically and illegally mine it, she said.
O'Holleran, while defending data collection, said schools should gather only what is necessary to improve student achievement. And, as more and more student information is gathered and stored, O'Holleran said, security should be “front and center.”
Her remarks echo the nationwide debate on the security of student records. Concern focuses on state projects that aim to give educators convenient, fingertip access to a slew of student records.
The Nebraska Department of Education is embarking on such a project.
The more conspiratorial theories allege that the federal government wants to collect everything from student blood types and Social Security numbers to kids' hobbies and family voting records.
Nebraska officials say their project would not collect any new data but would organize the data they have so it's more useful to teachers. They say they're careful with records and must comply with stiff rules under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. But they say local districts, governed by the act as well, must also secure data and control access to it.
The trend over the past decade is for states to gather more data, not less.
The Nebraska Department of Education has reported aggregate data to the federal government since the 1970s, state officials say. Aggregate data reflects groups of students, not individuals.
The state operates a student- and staff-level data warehouse called the Nebraska Student and Staff Record System, which it began developing in 2004.
In 2007 and 2012 the department received federal grants for system enhancements, among which would be creating what's known as a longitudinal data system. Such systems allow the tracking of individual students from preschool through college, but rather than using names, the system assigns each student a “unique identifier.”
Nebraska is not the only state moving toward longitudinal tracking. The Obama administration has advocated for it, to give educators more hard evidence on which to base decisions. As a result, several other states, including Iowa, are moving in that direction.
State officials say data collected on Nebraska's students may include things such as name, date of birth, race, gender, English language proficiency, performance on state assessments and eligibility for meal subsidies.
State officials say the department does not collect information on political affiliations or beliefs, sexual behavior or attitudes, religious practices, psychological or behavioral testing, DNA, student addresses or email addresses, or the income of a family or student.
Department officials say all of the information is stored in secure, encrypted databases.
But as in the case of Snowden, there is concern about someone with bad intentions being granted access — a contractor, for example.
Department officials say a board reviews all research requests and approves only those that are appropriate and comply with privacy laws.
Two years ago Roger Breed, the state education commissioner at the time, issued a memorandum to clarify that records that could possibly identify an individual should be handled only by department staff who have a need to complete required or assigned tasks.
State law requires that the department keep test scores of individual students confidential. Breed wrote that with a few exceptions, the department does not have specific legal authority to require the disclosure of Social Security numbers from individuals.
Nebraska officials say their project to create data “dashboards” for teachers will not collect new data. As with the gauges on a car's dashboard, these programs would give teachers real-time data on students' performance.
Marilyn Peterson, who is working on the project for the Nebraska Department of Education, said the dashboards will pull together information from different databases. They could gather together, for instance, state and district test scores, attendance records and discipline information on students, she said.
“The key thing is we are not collecting any new data,” she said.
Local districts remain the primary data collectors, sending student information to the state.
When a child is enrolled for the first time in a Nebraska public or private school, state law requires the parent to provide a certified copy of the child's birth certificate or “other reliable proof” of the student's identity and age.
Districts typically ask for proof of residency, documented by things such as a utility bill or lease agreement, and immunization records, which are required under state law.
Schools also want contact information such as parents' names, addresses and phone numbers, so school officials can communicate with parents.
The Omaha Public Schools may publicly disclose directory information, unless parents object. Directory information includes the student's name, grade level, date of birth, dates attended, honors and photograph.
OPS no longer lists addresses, phone numbers and parents' names in directory information.
The district may, however, release those, with parents' consent, to scholarship organizations, class ring manufacturers, yearbook publishers and senior-picture photographers.
Annette Eyman, communications director of Papillion-La Vista Public Schools, said private businesses are eager to obtain student information.
“We provide nothing,” she said. “For example, we get requests from Boys Scouts or Girl Scouts for a list of all fourth-graders. We never give that out.”
Photographers will ask for a list of all kids for senior pictures, she said. Although those requests are denied, when Papillion-La Vista contracts with photographers for class pictures, student names are made available, but the district retains the rights to the information.
“And we have a contract with them that states that,” she said. “So they can't take those kids' names or information or photos and sell them or use them. They belong to us.”
She said giving out such information is risky.
“Once you open that door, it's a huge door.”