Testimony to Indiana Common Core Legislative Review Panel

Published September 12, 2013

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the invitation to speak today. I’m Joy Pullmann, a Fort Wayne resident, mother of three children, and education research fellow for The Heartland Institute. Heartland is a state-focused, national think tank that researches and promotes ideas that empower people. My husband and I chose to live in Indiana because we want fiscal sanity and a state government that guards our liberties, so we can raise our children in peace. Today I will speak about a few gaps in Indiana law with the hope you speedily address them and guard the education privacy and freedom of all Indiana families.

I’m going to speak fast here, as it seems the testing companies all got a half hour to give their marketing schpiel, but Indiana taxpayers must be consigned to a ten-minute reality check. I am here to discuss student privacy and testing in the context of Common Core national education standards. I will outline what kind of educational data Indiana is collecting, how data collection is inseparable from Common Core, the massive student privacy and state sovereignty violations, and the foolish, experimental nature of the Common Core tests under construction.

Almost every state, including Indiana, has received federal grants to expand their student databases. Indiana’s most recent such grant, from 2012, sponsors “a federated data system that will enable automated linkages between K-12, higher education, and workforce data.”[1] The state told the federal government it would like to also centralize data from the state department of health, Student Assistance Commission, and Family and Social Services Administration.[2] Information from those agencies is obviously very personal, and can extend from health profiles and insurance to family disturbances and psychological test results.

The dangers of amassing every child’s personal data in one place are several-fold: First, Indiana has no student privacy law of its own, and instead uses the federal privacy law FERPA, or the Family Educational Records Privacy Act. The U.S. Department of Education has essentially erased this law, as I’ll explain later. Second, Common Core national tests send student data outside states where states and parents cannot control it. Third, apparently the state believes it should amass ever-expanding amounts of personal information about citizens, as long as everyone gets a random ID number. But researchers have known since the 90s that ID numbers provide no anonymity. Back then, using just seven datapoints such as age and race, researchers reattached anonymous student test results to their names with 86 percent accuracy.[3] With more information, which Indiana already collects, that accuracy rate goes up 100 percent, which is why researcher Richard Innes calls it “digital DNA.”

When a school collects medical information about a child, perhaps through the school nurse or individual education plans for special-needs students, that information enters a child’s education record and is subject to educational, not medical, privacy laws. The same is likely if social service information joins a child’s education record. Once in that record, it has essentially no legal protection in Indiana. As I said, Indiana uses federal student privacy law FERPA. In 2012 the U.S. Department of Education essentially rewrote FERPA to say it and every government agency, including schools, can share children’s information with any individual or organization they please, without informing parents.[4] Student records are also extremely attractive to hackers, as children often do not realize their identity has been stolen until they apply for a job or credit card. Just two weeks ago, hackers launched a very strong and sophisticated attack on Kentucky’s student records,[5] and such activity is a regular occurrence.

FERPA has also never protected the records of homeschool students. Any information school districts have about homeschool students is public under this law.[6]

Common Core, testing, and data collection are inseparable, and by design. The memorandum of understanding governors and state superintendents signed that kicked off Common Core defines the project as standards plus common assessments.[7] Common Core architect David Coleman told Home School Legal Defense Association Chairman Mike Farris that “other people have seized the opportunity to make a centralized data collection effort through the implementation of the Common Core,” Farris said.[8] Despite this statement, Coleman has spoken publicly in his new position as president of College Board, which owns SAT and AP testing, about how excited he is to use President Obama’s election data team to mine student data.[9]

Common Core makes highly in-depth data mining on children possible by creating a taxonomy every developer can use when designing education materials. This feature was touted at the White House’s Education Datapalooza last year.[10] This can be both a blessing and a curse, the latter becoming extremely apparent when the U.S. Department of Education publishes papers discussing how Common Core means evaluating students’ persistence[11] and other behavior attributes rather than academic knowledge, such as “flexibility, adaptability,” “cultural awareness and competence,” “self-regulation,” “physical and psychological health,” “empathy/perspective taking, trust, service orientation,” and “social influence with others.”[12]

States participating in national Common Core tests have also promised to provide the testing groups unspecified “student-level” data.[13] Florida’s Senate President and Speaker of the House in July complained publicly that testing group PARCC, which Florida helps lead and Indiana just dropped, has still not listed what student data it will demand of states, and plans not to until 2014, the year the tests arrive in schools.[14] Participating states have promised, in their contracts with PARCC and Smarter Balanced, to change any state laws that stand in the way of these Common Core tests.[15] This may easily include state student privacy laws, and certainly will if those impede the flow of data across state lines and government agencies. Once outside each state inside Common Core databases, student information falls under the meaningless FERPA. Because of these threats to self-government and family privacy, Indiana should never join any national Common Core testing organization. Persistence and psychological health are none of the federal government’s business, or the business of Common Core testing technocrats.

PARCC has committed to the federal government that it will “provide timely and complete access to any and all data collected at the State level to [the U.S. Department of Education]” and any agencies or organizations the feds designate.[16] Smarter Balanced has contracted to do the exact same.[17] I call this the student data pipeline. In short, both national Common Core testing groups have an open license to collect unenumerated student data from states and strike down any state laws or policies that would impede such collection, are feeding this information into national databases, and have granted full database access to the federal government. The federal government has also established a review panel to monitor these tests, right down to the questions they’ll ask students,[18] although three federal laws ban federal influence over testing.[19] Indiana’s new legislative cost analysis also suggests Common Core is really not a state-led enterprise, because it suggests the federal government may penalize Indiana for choosing something other than Common Core.[20] And both testing organizations have agreed to share data with each other and the feds.[21]

There are further questions over the quality and slant of Common Core tests, which I do not have time to fully discuss. First, the pilots tests they’re doing do not currently include the adaptive testing they plan to implement. National Common Core tests are an utter unknown. At the very least, Indiana leaders and independent analysts should review the final product before approving it, rather than asking parents and schools to subject their children to experimental testing that gets educrats all hot and bothered but has no track record. Second, trial runs and released potential test questions indicate PARCC and Smarter Balanced are pushing certain methods of teaching—methods, I might add, that are proven failures. In New York, for example, Common Core interim tests marked students wrong for getting the right answer but not using the test-approved “correct procedure” to reach it.[22] Third, the open-ended questions they plan to ask typically introduce far more subjectivity, cost, time, and error into test grading. If we want adaptive testing, by the way, Superintendent Ritz remarked publicly a few months ago that ISTEP can be made adaptive simply. Fourth, PARCC and Smarter Balanced have changed their estimates for testing costs several times. It would be prudent to know a final cost before signing on rather than rely on their shifting estimates. Independent analyst Doug McRae, who helped create California’s STAR testing system, says Common Core tests simply cannot do what they are promising for their estimated sticker prices.

In conclusion: Indiana should quickly pass a state student privacy law. It should abandon all thought of joining any national Common Core tests, ever. And lawmakers should revisit state plans for increasing and centralizing the data collected about citizens. It’s time to stop treating children like workforce development units whose hearts and minds must be opened to distant busybodies and treat them as humans under the control and protection of their parents, who have full rights to control their children’s education and private information.

[1] “Application for Grants Under the Statewide, Longitudinal Data Systems,” U.S. Department of Education, December 15, 2011, p. e11: https://nces.ed.gov/Programs/SLDS/pdf/Indiana2012.pdf.

[2] Ibid, p. e23.

[3] “Impact of Exclusion Rates on NAEP 1994 to 1998 Grade 4 Reading Gains in Kentucky,” Lauress Weiss, National Center for Education Statistics, September 27, 1999, Table 2: https://nces.ed.gov/whatsnew/commissioner/remarks99/9_27_99pt2.asp#table2.

[4] “Controlling Education from the Top,” Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins, Pioneer Institute/American Principles Project, May 2012: pioneerinstitute.org/download/controlling-education-from-the-top/.

[5] “Parent portal offline for some after hack attack on Infinite Campus system; student data untouched,”  Brad Hughes, KSBA eNews Service, August 30, 2013: http://www.ksba.org/protected/ArticleView.aspx?iid=6GP0A3Y&dasi=3UBI.

[6] “Fixing FERPA: Protect Homeschoolers’ Privacy,” Home School Legal Defense Association, September 9, 2002: http://www.hslda.org/docs/news/hslda/200209/200209090.asp. This loophole has not been fixed since 2002, although there have been regular, almost annual, efforts to do so.

[7] “Common Core Standards Memorandum of Agreement,” National Governors Association and Chief Council of State School Officers, May 8, 2009: http://www.freedomkentucky.org/images/c/c6/2009_CCSS_Commitment_MOA_from_Open_Recs_Request.pdf.

[8] “My Conversation with the Leader of the Common Core,” Michael Farris, HSLDA.org, July 29, 2013: http://www.hslda.org/docs/news/2013/201307290.asp.

[9] “SDP Beyond the Numbers Convening: David Coleman,” Strategic Data Project annual convention, May 31, 2013: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPoUmSfTTNI.

[11]  “Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century,” U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology, February 2013, p. 6: http://www.ed.gov/edblogs/technology/files/2013/02/OET-Draft-Grit-Report-2-17-13.pdf.

[12] Ibid., p. 7.

[13] “Race to the Top Assessment Program Application for New Grants,” SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, June 23, 2010, p. 100: http://www.smarterbalanced.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Smarter-Balanced-RttT-Application.pdf; and Race to the Top Assessment Program Application for New Grants, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, June 6, 2010, p. 191-197: http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop-assessment/rtta2010parcc.pdf.

[14] Letter from Don Gaetz and Will Weatherford to Tony Bennett, July 17, 2013: http://media.parentsrock.org/FL_Legislature_Letter-to-Tony-Bennett_PARCC_2013-07-13.pdf.

[15] For the template of such an agreement for a PARCC state, see Arkansas Memorandum of Understanding for Race to the Top Comprehensive Assessment Systems Grant, June 3, 2010, p. 14 and 15: http://www.fldoe.org/parcc/pdf/MOUArkansas.pdf; and for a template of this agreement from an SBAC state, see Missouri Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium Document of Commitment, May 14, 2010, p 12. : http://www.moagainstcommoncore.com/documents/Missouri%20SMARTER%20Balanced%20MOU.doc.

[16] Cooperative Agreement Between the U.S. Department of Education and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of [sic] College and Careers, January 7, 2011, p. 10: http://”www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop-assessment/parcc-cooperative-agreement.pdf.

[17] “Cooperative Agreement Between the U.S. Department of Education and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium and the State of Washington (fiscal agent), January 7, 2011, p. 10: http://www.moagainstcommoncore.com/documents/SBAC%20USED%20agreement%20copy.pdf.

[18] “Common-Assessment Groups to Undergo New Federal Review Process,” Catherine Gewertz, Education Week, April 1, 2013: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2013/04/common_assessment_groups_to_undergo_new_federal_review_process.html.

[19] “The Road to a National Curriculum,” Robert Eitel and Kent Talbert, Pioneer Institute, February 9, 2012: http://pioneerinstitute.org/download/the-road-to-a-national-curriculum/.

[20] “Indiana Common Core Implementation: Fiscal Impact Report,” Indiana Office of Management and Budget, August 2013, p. 3.

[21] Race to the Top Assessment Program Application for New Grants, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, June 6, 2010, p. 191-197: http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop-assessment/rtta2010parcc.pdf.

[22] “Why are the Common Core standards worth fighting for?” New Schools Venture Fund blog, Benjamin Riley, August 7, 2013: http://www.newschools.org/blog/why-are-the-common-core-standards-worth-fighting-for.