Privacy Technical Assistance Center to review district websites for data privacy, transparency

The Privacy Technical Assistance Center, a division of the U.S. Education Department’s Office of the Chief Privacy Officer, plans to review a “representative sample” of local educational agency websites to assess the transparency of their data practices and compliance with federal privacy laws when contracting with third-party vendors.

The review comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of data practices. Indeed, PTAC officials said they are surveying sites because of a rise in public discourse on data and student privacy, an influx of misinformation and confusion about confidentiality issues, and an increase in state-level legislative action relating to data collection, use, and sharing. As such, the department said school administrators should take a proactive approach in communicating with parents.

Although they are still refining their method, data privacy specialists at PTAC said the LEA transparency website review will include the following approaches:

  • Devise a survey and audit checklist to assess legal compliance and best practice approaches employed by districts via their website.
  • Develop a series of public reports with detailed summaries of findings and best practices for districts to improve student privacy.

Specifications of the review

Reviewers will look for the availability of required notices relating to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, and directory information as well as the “readability and specificity” of those required notices. They also intend to examine an LEA’s legal compliance with third-party contracts, among other metrics.

PTAC will begin conducting its survey of LEA websites this fall and intends to issue individualized reports to LEAs whose websites were reviewed by September 2019. These reports will not be publicly available, according to a senior official speaking on background, but by late fall 2022, PTAC intends to release a final report that de-identifies reviewed LEAs with a summary of the project’s findings.

With these results, PTAC aims to inform the Office of the Chief Privacy Officer of the “current state of privacy and transparency relating to data practices across the country” to better prioritize their guidance and technical assistance. They also propose to issue yearly public reports that allow state educational agencies and LEA officials to address any privacy and transparency concerns within their jurisdictions.

During a session at the 2018 National Center for Education Statistics STATS-DC DATA Conference, PTAC officials pointed to several models, including the student privacy page of the Denver Public Schools website, which links to a FERPA-approved app list. They also highlighted the Indiana Department of Education website, which contains links that share public information on why, where, how and when data is collected.

Best practices to communicate data policies

ED issued the Transparency Best Practices for Schools and Districts in 2014 to help institutions take steps to achieve greater transparency with respect to their data practices.

In that guide, ED suggested the following best practices in communicating data collection and acceptable use policies with stakeholders:

  • Describe what information the LEA is collecting about students. Develop and publish a data inventory listing the information that the schools collect from or about students.
  • Explain why the school is collecting student information (e.g., for state or federal reporting, to provide educational services, to improve instruction, to administer cafeteria services, etc.).
  • Explain the method for how the institution is collecting the information, describing information technology security and data protection policies and any policies on how it governs access and use of student’s personally identifiable information.
  • Describe if any personal information is shared with third parties and for what purposes. Consider posting contracts online and provide a list of apps that are approved for the classroom.

Emily Ann Brown covers education technology and STEM education issues for LRP Publications.

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