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Advocates want to limit uses of student data

Maya Sugarman/KPCC

As computerized testing becomes the norm in California schools and many students are using computers to turn in class assignments, tiny bits of data useful to school administrator are captured along with it.

An advocacy group is concerned about who else is using that data: software and publishing companies who created the tests and assignments and use it to improve products, increase sales and target advertising. And it commissioned a survey that found most people are worried about it, too.

In a poll released Wednesday, most of the 800 voters it contacted are concerned about a lack of government oversight. The poll was conducted by Benson Strategy Group and paid for by Common Sense Media.

"If you are a parent and your kid has a health problem - attention deficit disorder or something else - that information shouldn't be in the hands of an app maker or a computer software company," said Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media.

Steyer said he hopes the survey results will build awareness. It showed many of the parents don't know that personal data, such as age, grades and performance measures, is stored by software companies.

The survey found 89 percent of respondents were concerned about student data being used by advertisers to market to them - such as when kids have a class-required gmail account and Google uses data contained there to target ads to the kids. Steyer said he is advocating for legislation in Sacramento that would address it.  

"Right now it's sort of like wild, wild west when it comes to student privacy," he said. "There are no real laws or polices in place, so everyone does it differently - some do it well, some do it poorly." 

Steyer said he wants educators to use student achievement data being used to better direct an individual student's study. He doesn't mind companies such Pearson - which is providing software still in development for the Los Angeles Unified School District's new iPads - collecting student achievement data to test, improve and market products.

But his group does want to ban schools from selling private information to advertisers - though Steyer couldn't say how often this happens.

The group also favors requiring schools to notify parents before data is shared with companies, and requiring tighter security for schools storing students data on site or in the cloud.