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School group to get reply from state Monday on student data

With the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education missing a mid-May time frame to release information on who has access to student data, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees is using a freedom-of-information request to get the answer.

Citing the state public records law in a letter dated June 5 that was obtained by the Globe, Ann Marie Cugno, president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, requested that education commissioner Mitchell D. Chester release any records concerning the identity of individuals, corporations, or other entities that have access to student data collected through assessment testing and by other means.

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In a Friday e-mail to Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, Jeffrey Wulfson, deputy commissioner for the education department, said the information request had been completed and was being reviewed by key staff before being sent on Monday.

Wulfson also said that the information would be posted on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website later in the week.

“Apologies again for the delay,” Wulfson wrote in the e-mail.

The education department had 10 calendar days from receipt of the request to respond, according to the public records law. If it was unable to furnish the information, state law requires a written explanation as to why.

“I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall figuring out what they are saying to each other,” Koocher said last week after confirming that Chester had received the freedom of information request.

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School committee members throughout the state are following the release of the vendor list as they decide whether or not to vote in favor of having the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test replace MCAS tests starting in the 2015-2016 school year.

Peabody last month voted against administering the PARCC test as part of the two-year trial next year. There is a deadline of Oct. 1 for all school districts to decide on whether they will administer the PARCC test or stay with MCAS for the 2014-2015 school year.

Following the two-year trial, the state Board of Education will vote on whether to replace the MCAS with PARCC.

Peabody School Committee member Dave McGeney began calling the education department in March concerning the availability of student data after taking a closer look at the PARCC test, which was rolled out for a test run this spring in some 1,000 schools statewide as a potential replacement for MCAS.

But after repeated attempts failed, McGeney turned to the school committee association for support. At least a dozen other school committee members in districts throughout the state, including North Reading and Worcester, joined McGeney in asking the Massachusetts Association of School Committees to make a formal request for the vendor list, said Koocher.

In early May, Jackie Reis, the education department’s media relations coordinator, declined to answer several questions from the Globe on what student data are collected through assessment testing as well as who has access to the data, saying the information would be released to the public later that month.

“People are still compiling the vendor list and I don’t have a definite date of when it will be ready,” said Reis in a June 5 e-mail to the Globe following an additional request for the information. “The delay continues to be simply a workload issue.”

“It’s true that we certainly do not sell student information,” said Reis in an e-mail in response to a new Globe query on June 9. “In terms of sharing student data, we share it with vendors who need the data to fulfill the contract for which we have hired them.”

David Perda, chief accountability officer for the Worcester public schools, said that Measured Progress of New Hampshire, which administers the MCAS test, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and Pearson Education, which has a two-year contract to administer the PARCC test, are the only groups he is aware of that may have access to student data.

“Different data sets cut across different departments with the [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education],” said Perda. “It could be that they don’t have one single person maintaining and tracking what goes where. Maybe they are realizing now that there should be.”

Bob Johnson, who is serving his first term on the Halifax Elementary School Committee, said he attended an informational meeting hosted by state education officials in Norfolk recently and is considering how he will vote on staying with the MCAS tests for the upcoming school year or using the PARCC test. As part of that decision, Johnson would like to know what student data are collected through the assessment tests.

“I am absolutely concerned about privacy rights of students and parents,” said Johnson. “I don’t know what data is being collected or where it is going.”

McGeney, who is in his 19th year as a member of the Peabody School Committee, said that this is the first time he has experienced such roadblocks with the state education department.

“While I don’t suspect anything illegal with who they are sharing student data with, certainly I am concerned with their reluctance to hand over the information,” said McGeney. “I think that there is clearly a movement to take all education matters away from local cities and towns.

“I just think that there’s always a predisposition to building fiefdoms and kingdoms anytime a government agency is established, and I think that’s something that as citizens we need to constantly have to guard against.”

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

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