The Digital Backpack: Legislators wanted state-run database to track all K-12 students

KidIn the world of legislation, the motto “if at first you don’t succeed try, try again” applies.  Governor Dayton likely knew that installing taxpayer-funded universal PreK wasn’t going to happen with a Republican House, but he planted a seed for future debate while securing  increased funding to expand existing state PreK programs.  There were many other education bills that the public never heard about this session which were also initial attempts to change policy.  While they didn’t make it far in 2015, taxpayers will most likely see some of these bills again down the road.

One of these ideas was coined “the Digital Backpack” and was sponsored by Rep Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie.  Loon was highly visible this session as the returning champion of Sunday liquor sales as well as serving as chair of the K-12 Education committee which provided a 9.5% increase in spending for Minnesota public schools and various programs.  Loon had success in changing requirements for out-of-state teachers to become licensed in Minnesota.  She also worked on other K-12 issues that didn’t move this session, including reforming teacher tenure firing practices and establishing an $875,000 grant to Minneapolis Schools for a program to help girls of color do better in school.  A more controversial bill that received little notice also had Loon’s chief sponsorship, HF 1990, the “Digital student achievement backpack establishment” bill.  The accompanying SF 990 was sponsored by Sen Charles Wiger, D-Maplewood and Sen Tony Lourey, D-Kerrick.

The “digital backpack” would be a cloud-based, web-accessible database for all K-12 grade students in Minnesota public schools and provide a “complete learner profile” to be used for post-secondary planning and assisting teachers and administrators in “diagnosing a student’s learning needs” while facilitating “a parent or guardian taking an active role in the the student’s education.”

The bill would have established a “Minnesota Student Record Center” as a repository of student data collected from local education agencies.”  The Center would be under the Commissioner of the the Minnesota Department of Education which would house the information collected.  While the law would require that the Commissioner of Education “implement security measures to ensure that student data is secure and confidential,” that would be impossible in today’s hacking age which raises issues of privacy surrounding information collected about minor children.  Recall that the state of Minnesota was sued for state employees improperly viewing drivers license data on private citizens although a federal judge dismissed the cases.  The legislative auditor’s office found in 2013 that driver data was commonly misused by state employees.

The bill that Loon, Wiger, and Lourey worked for would have been put in place by June 30, 2016 and would have been required that the following student data be collected:

  • demographic information
  • course grades
  • course history
  • results for state-mandated assessments

By June 30, 2017, additional date would be required, including:

  • attendance records
  • name of a student’s teacher and the teacher’s qualifications
  • results of formative, interim, and summative computer adaptive assessments
  • detailed data demonstrating a student’s mastery of state academic standards
  • results from career and college readiness assessments
  • federal free or reduced-priced lunch program eligibility

Parents would  have to authorize user-access at the local level, but once approved any teacher or staff member that provides student instruction could access the records.  By June 30, 2018, the Commissioner would have been required to ensure that the collected data are integrated into each local student information system.  The Department of Education would be also required to develop policies for local school districts that ensure data is only available to authorized individuals.  While many local school districts maintain databases containing student information, this would be a new state government database that would require compliance from independent districts as well as charter schools.  No mention of home school students was made in the bill, but since they are required to report to their local school district superintendent, it’s possible their information would also be required.

While this new state mandate didn’t make it far in 2015, parents and privacy rights advocates would be wise to start asking their legislators about their position on digital backpacks today.