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Educators wary over test’s use of student data

Students at the Susan B. Anthony Middle School in Revere tried out the online PARCC test last month.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Students at the Susan B. Anthony Middle School in Revere tried out the online PARCC test last month.

Fueling growing unrest among some school officials regarding student privacy and a new assessment test, the state education department said it is not ready to release information on who has access to data collected on students.

The Massachusetts Association of School Committees last month asked the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for a list of vendors who receive student data collected through testing and by school districts. But the DESE said this is the first such request the department has ever received and that the information is not readily available.

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“What I see here is a legitimate issue, and frankly I’d like to know the answers to, one, who gets access to the info, and, two, why aren’t they giving the answers out?” said Glenn Koocher, executive director of MASC, who said he was contacted by at least a dozen school committee members from across the state asking him to make a formal request for the information.

“This is student data and I would hope that it’s not going to marketers who will be bombarding them,” said Mel Webster, a member of the North Reading School Committee.

Jackie Reis, DESE media relations coordinator, declined to answer questions from the Globe regarding who has access to student data collected through assessment testing; how many vendors are under contract to receive student data; how vendors are vetted; how data are shared; if student data are sold and if so, for how much; vendor contract lengths; and who is ultimately responsible at the DESE for data collection, sharing, and vetting vendors. Reis said answers to these questions would have to wait till mid-May.

“The reason the list of vendors is taking a while to compile is because different vendors work with different sections of the department, and no one has ever asked for the full list before,” said Reis. “It should be available in mid-May, and as part of that release, we’ll explain how [vendors] are vetted.”

Peabody School Committee member Dave McGeney made the initial request concerning the availability of all student data collected by the DESE in late March after taking a closer look at the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers , or PARCC test, which was rolled out for a test run this spring in some 1,000 school districts statewide. But he was unable to get any information about the availability of any student data collected by the state agency after repeated attempts through various DESE staff, he said.

“There’s no transparency and the answers raise more questions,” said McGeney.

The PARCC consortium, which includes 16 states and the District of Columbia, is working to reach national education standards called Common Core. PARCC received $186 million in 2010 in federal Race to the Top funds, said David Connerty-Marin, communications director for PARCC.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will vote in 2015 on whether to adopt PARCC as a replacement to the MCAS after a two-year trial and review.

PARCC has contracted Pearson Education , a publishing and assessment service that operates in 70 countries worldwide, to administer the field test this year, and next year’s test, when scores will count, said Marin. Pearson’s North American branch, with offices in several states including Massachusetts, is part of Pearson PLC of London, which owns several media brands including Penguin Books and Simon & Schuster, according to information available online.

According to the US Department of Education budget outline, $91.3 million was earmarked for assessment, design, and development for all states in the PARCC consortium for the period from July 1, 2013, to Sept. 30, 2015. But requests to find out how much of that money is being paid to Pearson were unsuccessful.

Stacy Skelly, director of media relations for Pearson, declined to comment on what data are collected through the PARCC test; if that data can be shared with third parties; and what PARCC pays Pearson for the two-year contract to administer the test. She referred all questions to PARCC and the state of Massachusetts.

PARCC did not return several calls inquiring about the terms of its contract with Pearson, including what data are collected on students and what is shared with private vendors, who could possibly use it to sell services or recruit students.

Student data, such as demographic information, individual educational plans, ethnicity, and attendance rates, have historically been gathered by school districts and reported to the DESE through the Student Information Management System, said Joe Mastrocola, Peabody’s superintendent. The information is mandated to meet federal and state requirements for funding and in forming policy decisions, he said.

There is a move underway throughout Massachusetts school districts to move to an online integrated reporting system called Schools Integrated Operability Framework, said Josh Murphy, director of information for Burlington schools. This would allow districts to update student data directly to the DESE “live,” replacing the reporting now done three times a year.

Massachusetts has used Measured Progress, a company based in Dover, N.H., to administer and calculate MCAS results for several years, said Mastrocola, the Peabody superintendent.

“They mail the tests in boxes with instructions and we collect the tests and mail them back to them,” said Mastrocola. “They compile the results, and all results are shared with parents and students.”

Although Koocher of the school committee association is confident that the DESE protects student privacy, he urged the department to respond promptly to prevent the sense of frustration and suspicion from further snowballing.

“My sense is that a flood of FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests will follow if this information is not provided, and failure to provide this information will only exacerbate those who think that the information is being sold to proprietary organizations to help them make more profits,” said Koocher in an April 16 e-mail to DESE staff.

The Peabody School Committee in March voted to give parents the right to allow their children to opt out of taking the PARCC test, as did a handful of other school districts in Central and Western Massachusetts.

Last month, the Peabody School Committee cast a unanimous vote asking state officials, including the State Ethics Commission, to review a possible conflict of interest regarding DESE commissioner Mitchell Chester’s role as chairman of the governing board of PARCC as the state weighs a change from MCAS testing.

Mayor Ted Bettencourt of Peabody said the state ethics board sent a letter that acknowledged receiving the request, but the city has received no further word on its status.

Bella Travaglini can be reached at bellatrav@gmail.com.
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