Step by step, an infrastructure is emerging that would make it possible for dozens of states to share data about the students in their K-12 and postsecondary education systems, creating the equivalent of a national system of data on students' educational progress.
That prospect excites many policy makers,  who say the ability to gather and analyze such information is essential to reaching the widely embraced goal of getting more Americans into and out of higher education with a meaningful credential.
And at the very same time, it deeply troubles some Congressional Republicans and higher education privacy advocates, who say such a massive receptacle of data on students would inevitably impinge on individual privacy.
The development of such a stitched-together network has itself seemed almost inevitable since Congressional Republicans, formally  and otherwise,  put the kibosh on the Bush administration's vision  of creating a truly federal "unit record" database as part of its existing Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.
A coalition of major foundations (Lumina and Gates), higher education research groups like the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, and, now, the Obama administration have, with a series of advocacy reports and many millions of dollars, embraced as an alternative the development of statewide data systems that could be linked, and work has been proceeding on a variety of fronts in the last few years.
But recent weeks have taken the discussions to a new level, with the establishment of a technical working group  convened by the U.S. Education Department to "work quickly, yet carefully, to compile and refine a set of core data standards" that the various statewide elementary/secondary and postsecondary databases could use to make it easier to link them together, within and among states.
"They're going to try to come up with what I hope is a parsimonious, practical set of data definitions and standards," said Paul Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers. "There are a very small number of data elements that are really central to educational progress and achievement, and sometimes separate standards [and definitions] for K-12 and higher education.... Where there needs to be communication between the two, like in terms of students' academic preparation and academic success, this would create consistent standards so that communication could take place."
It is logical for the Education Department to play this role of "convening" because of the government's extensive experience with IPEDS and other existing student databases, Lingenfelter said. Much of the groundwork for agreement has been laid in those databases, he said.
Once the "model common data standards" are developed, the State Higher Education Executive Officers and the Council of Chief State School Officers will -- using grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- build understanding of and support for the standards among their respective members, SHEEO announced last week.
In a statement on its Web site , the groups will "promote the voluntary adoption of these model data standards by states, districts, K-12 schools, postsecondary institutions and marketplace providers.... Decision makers in individual states, schools, and colleges will make the ultimate decisions about their data standards, but the project seeks to develop highly useful and valuable standards that will attract widespread adoption."
Concerns From Congress
Republicans in the House of Representatives were the most vocal opponents of the idea of a federal student records database, and they seem to see the current effort as little different.
“To have the U.S. Department of Education take an active role in developing ‘model standards’ for state-level databases raises serious questions about the federalization of student information," Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, said in response to the SHEEO statement.
"How is this information going to be used? Who will have access to it? Will parents and students be able to opt out of this massive cradle-to-career tracking system? We already have strict federal privacy laws in place to prevent abuse of private student information. Those laws must be followed to the letter -- and in light of recent developments, Congress should consider whether it’s time to update and strengthen these privacy protections for the 21st century.”
Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said he was troubled that the Education Department seemed to be convening technical experts to talk about how to work through "technocratic details" of unifying state data systems without having had a full-blown discussion or debate about whether creating such a system is wise and necessary.
"The kind of policy conversations that would ideally be had before you hand it to the geeks has never taken place," Nassirian said. While the repeated policy statements from the last two administrations, foundations like Gates and Lumina, and consultants like NCHEMS may make it seem as if there is broad agreement on the wisdom of this approach, "that's very clearly false," he said. "You can get consensus on any proposition if you exclude all of the critics."
Privacy advocates, or individuals from associations of colleges that have expressed concern about broad student data systems, have not been included in the Education Department's recent discussions, Nassirian said. While he and others who've raised questions about expansive collection of student information have been accused of opposing the use of data for accountability purposes, Nassirian said, "I don't for a moment doubt that collecting more data and making sure they're homogeneous is good idea."
"But the question is not whether the abstract effort is headed in the right direction," he added. "When you don't have privacy advocates in the room, and representatives of subjects, you have one set of interests trumping all others. When that happens, you'll end up with excessive data collection that will be unmanageable and that will inevitably have problems.
"This is how the doomsday machine was built," Nassirian concluded. "Off they go to build it without regard to whether they should."
Lingenfelter reiterated the voluntary nature of the common data standards project, noting that the goal is "to develop an industry standard that everybody can use, not to create something that everybody has to participate in."
But those questioning whether it is appropriate to create national, even federal, repositories of large amounts of student data may "have [their] head totally in the sand over what the current reality is," he said. Many if not most colleges provide their student-level data to the National Student Clearinghouse,  which tracks students for financial aid and degree verification purposes, and the Education Department has "enormous federal databases on student aid for millions of students."
So that ship has sailed? Lingenfelter was asked. "It sailed tens of years ago," he said.