Blog: The Educated Reporter

Accessing Student Data: What Reporters Need to Know

While there has been a substantial uptick in the quality and quantity of data being collected on students and educators in schools around the country, accessing it and understanding it is still a challenge.

Aimee Guidera, founder and executive director of the Data Quality Campaign, told an audience of reporters at EWA’s National Seminar in Nashville that few states could collect longitudinal data on students in 2005. Now, the majority of states are collecting information but those who most often need to understand the data still do not, she said.

Guidera said she founded DQC because there was a vital need to train people to appreciate and interpret educational data. DQC is dedicated to encouraging policymakers to increase the availability and use of high-quality education data to improve student achievement, according to the nonprofit advocacy group’s website. At the same time, Guidera said, the people with most direct knowledge of students’ educational needs would also benefit from a more open stream of information.

“Teachers and parents have not been getting to the data that they need,” Guidera told the EWA audience at Vanderbilt University in May. “They do not understand why this matters to us. We haven’t trained teachers to understand that data.”

With the spotlight on data collection, some parents may be fearful and consider it privacy risk. Addressing those concerns is critical, Guidera said.

“None of us have done a good job about helping people understand what data is,” she said, adding educators and reporters should help people understand the positive uses of data for school wide and individual student improvement.

Guidera was speaking mostly about data collected on school-aged children. At the other end of the spectrum, Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said there are still great challenges in accessing data from universities and colleges.

Reporters, he said, need to keep data keepers accountable, and challenge blanket claims of privacy to block information that common sense might suggest should be accessible. 

“We have to be savvy enough to push back,” LoMonte said.

LoMonte said higher education institutions often invoke the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to restrict access to data. He gave an example of a recent incident at Columbia University where female students wrote the names of students that had allegedly sexually assaulted other students on the bathroom walls.

When a student asked for information about the graffiti, Columbia officials said that reproducing the graffiti “would be a violation of student privacy,” said LoMonte, adding that other schools have restricted everything from swim meet results to videos of assaults on buses.

“You name it, and FERPA has been attached to it,” LoMonte said.

LoMonte recommended that journalists and others seeking public information fully understand what falls under FERPA and what doesn’t. He said FERPA only applies to a record maintained by the university.

In order for something to be classified as a record it has to be centrally maintained in a database and it has to relate to the identification of a student directly. (For more on FERPA, take a look at EWA’s Reporter Guide to Obtaining Public Records.)

Records that are not protected under FERPA include law enforcement records. Several universities across the country are dealing with sexual assault accusations against their students, and reporters are entitled to those records, LaMonte said.

“If a disciplinary case ends in a finding of responsibility, a crime or violation…that outcome is not protected under FERPA,” he said. “They need to tell you that.”

Even when data was available, some journalists voiced concerns that universities were restricting access by making the data expensive. Universities would charge hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars for data requests.

LoMonte said reporters should be able to negotiate lower the price of a data request and could even help institutions find easier ways to respond to data requests in a more timely manner.

“Only chumps pay sticker price,” he said. 


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