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Parents concerned about privacy in new student-data storehouse

Julie Woestehoff executive director Parents United for Responsible Educatisaid: 'We want people know there are some serious threats student datprivacy

Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, said: "We want people to know there are some serious threats to student data privacy on the horizon here in Illinois." | Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: December 21, 2013 6:24AM

Parents concerned about student privacy are gearing up to fight a controversial data storehouse that has already been dropped in several states.

The cloud-based service — run by a nonprofit group called inBloom — helps school districts manage student data and gives teachers access to digital resources to help in the classroom. InBloom can collect data on everything from attendance and grades to medical history, but a spokesman cautions that it’s up to individual state and school district officials to determine what is gathered and what is done with the data.

Critics are worried about privacy, the security of the data and how the data will be used. To assuage concerns, Illinois education officials said a state-run program will be the main component. It will collect only academic information such as grades and assessment scores, and inBloom services will be an optional add-on by individual districts.

Illinois and New York are the only two states currently working with inBloom.

Seven other states that had signed up to work with inBloom have opted out, an inBloom spokesman confirmed. Last week, the Colorado Department of Education ended its agreement with inBloom, according to a statement. Last week, parents in New York filed a lawsuit against the state’s department of education seeking to “halt the unnecessary and unprecedented mass disclosure” of student records, citing worries about privacy and the security of the data stored in the cloud.

In Chicago,“We want people to know there are some serious threats to student data privacy on the horizon here in Illinois,” said Julie Woestehoff, the executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education.

In Illinois, inBloom services will be offered but won’t be mandatory, officials said.

Instead, an online platform called the Illinois Shared Learning Environment, or ISLE, is in development. Officials bill it as being the “one-stop shop of student information.”

Adding to that will be a component from inBloom that would “expand ISLE’s reach” by allowing access to a broader range of digital applications and content, said Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education.

Fergus said the data collected by ISLE will be relevant only “to instructional applications” and won’t have anything to do with a child’s health or disciplinary matters.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for inBloom said its service is simply a “more efficient and cost-effective” version of what school districts already do. He said the nonprofit is focused on privacy and the security of the data and doesn’t sell or share it.

In Illinois, two Downstate districts will pilot the ISLE program this winter, according to the state board of education. Over the next two years, 35 pioneering districts that receive federal money will start participating in ISLE.

That includes Chicago Public Schools.

In a letter to Woestehoff’s group earlier this month, CPS’ chief information officer wrote that “no specific plans for participation [in ISLE] have been outlined.”

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said CPS is working to make sure the collected data will be used for “creating personalized learning plans for students in need of academic support.”

“CPS won’t move forward with this initiative until it is guaranteed that the process is completely secure and student data is safe,” Carroll said.

A forum on the issue, hosted by parents’ groups, is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at Fosco Park, 1312 S. Racine.


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