If the efforts by state legislators to restrict the use of student data are any guide, the email addresses and search queries of the nation’s schoolchildren are a hot commodity.
In May, Georgia adopted a law barring online services designed for elementary through high school from selling or sharing students’ names, email addresses, test results, grades or socioeconomic or disability information. It also bars them from using the data to target students with ads.
In August, Delaware enacted a law that forbids online school services from selling students’ personal details — including their political or religious affiliations, food purchases, text messages, photos, videos and web searches — or using the information to market to them.
Those are just two of the 182 bills introduced in 46 states this year intended to bolster protections for student information, according to a report this month from Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit group that advocates the effective use of student data in education. Fifteen of those states have passed 28 laws, said the group, which is financed in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The activity stands in stark contrast to legislative interest just two years ago, when Oklahoma was the only state to pass such legislation. It also provides a clear indication of the rapid adoption of learning apps in classrooms — and of concerns that these novel technologies generate a trove of new data about students that could be used in unforeseen ways.
Many of the new tools are designed to tailor learning to each child. To achieve that sort of customization, the software may collect and analyze a vast array of details about the habits and activities of individual students.
These apps and sites represent a small but growing segment of the overall market for prekindergarten through 12th-grade education software,estimated at about $8.4 billion last year. But already, the data collection has raised concerns among lawmakers and parents about whether school districts are equipped to monitor and manage how schools and online education services safeguard students’ personal details.
Some legislators have pointed out the potential for identity theft and predatory marketing.
“We want to make sure that companies are not selling the data, using it for targeted marketing to students or using it in any other way that is not their business to use,” said John Albers, a Republican member of the Georgia State Senate. Mr. Albers sponsored the legislation that was adopted in his state this year restricting the use of student information by school vendors.
As schools themselves increasingly analyze socioeconomic, behavioral and emotional data about students, some parents are more troubled by the possibility that the data could be used in making decisions that are damaging to their children, potentially affecting their college or job prospects.
“If we are going to look at new ways of holding schools accountable — Are they helping kids learn? Are they preparing them for what’s next? — we need more than just reading and math scores,” said Paige Kowalski, the vice president for policy and advocacy at Data Quality Campaign. “Folks are looking at social-emotional indicators, and that has raised concerns.”
School districts have long kept records of students’ academic performance and extracurricular activities, their health conditions, gender, race and eligibility for reduced-price school lunches. Educational apps, homework portals, digital cafeteria payment systems and other programs may log even more granular information in real time — about how students study, where they go, what they eat and whom they interact with and when.
Many schools give students Gmail or Microsoft email addresses and use those companies’ programs for student calendars, documents, web searches and file-sharing. Some also employ data-driven math and language apps; these are tools that may record and analyze thousands of pieces of data about each student with the aim of customizing lessons on the spot to that student’s abilities and tastes.
In an effort to quell some parents’ concerns about the use of that information — and simultaneously ease the way for technology adoption in schools — states last year introduced more than 100 student data bills. California, a national trendsetter in privacy legislation, enacted a landmark law that specifically prohibits online school services from using students’ personal data to show them personalized ads; more generally, the law bars the services from employing student data for nonschool purposes.
This year, about two dozen states introduced similar bills. And five bills have been introduced in Congress aimed at protecting student information.
About 170 companies — including Apple, Google and Microsoft — have agreed to a voluntary industry pledge that obligates companies not to use the student data collected by their classroom products for personalized advertising.
Industry advocates, however, say the hodgepodge of state efforts could backfire — by limiting the learning apps available to schools.
Many fledgling digital education companies may not have the capacity to tailor their products to the widely varying student data-handling rules of different states, said Mark Schneiderman, the senior director of education policy at the Software and Information Industry Association, a trade group. “Will certain markets be left behind?” he asked.
But as schools collect and analyze a wealth of details about students, some parents are raising questions about the fair and appropriate use of their children’s data that go much deeper than marketing issues.
One day last year, for instance, Kerisha Harris’s daughter came home from first grade with a letter from school saying she was overweight.
Ms. Harris, a web producer for a local television station in Weston, Fla., said the school had neither asked her permission to calculate her daughter’s body mass index nor notified the family about its obesity-intervention program. She said her daughter was too young at the time to fully comprehend what had occurred. Still, Ms. Harris said she personally found the data collection invasive and the report inaccurate.
“If I want to disclose information about my child, my family, my socioeconomic status, I should be the one to decide, not the school,” Ms. Harris said. “My kids are there to learn, not to be part of a data set.”
Some evidence-based education researchers would like to see school administrators require rigorous pilot studies to establish whether data-driven programs result in better outcomes for students before introducing the efforts districtwide or statewide. That includes information about students collected and maintained by the schools.
A recent study on school tracking of body mass index, for example, reported that students whose families received school notices that their children were overweight showed no significant differences in B.M.I. scores after two years compared with students who were not screened. Despite the reported lack of benefit — and the potential for harm to student self-esteem — obesity tracking and notification programs continue in many schools.
“The elephant in the room is the efficacy of wholesale student data collection,” said Khaliah Barnes of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a research group in Washington. “More forward-thinking legislation will have to confront the issue of the overcollection of student data.”