The Illinois State Board of Education held four meetings this fall around the state to gather input on its budget for fiscal year 2021. You can see the budget for FY2020 as enacted here. Below you can read the testimony we submitted about our concerns about the funds to be appropriated for assessments to two test vendors, Pearson and the College Board.
Testimony submitted for FY2021 budget hearing
In Fiscal Year 2020, the Illinois State Board of Education budget for assessment was $81.5 million, $35 million from federal funds, and $46.5 million in state funds. (In addition, another $2 million is paid in state funds to the College Board for to cover the fees for low-income students’ Advanced Placement test fees.)
We are deeply concerned that a large portion of the funds spent in FY2020 and likely for FY2021 will be payments to two standardized test vendors with poor track records on protecting the highly sensitive student data they collect, Pearson and the College Board.
Before any additional dollars are appropriated to either of these organizations, we urge the Illinois State Board of Education to perform a thorough investigation of how each organization is treating student data in their possession: whether they are in compliance with all state and federal laws and regulations regarding student data; whether they have implemented policies and procedures sufficient to keep all data in their possession secure and private; and whether they are improperly exploiting data for commercial gain.
The data Pearson and College Board collect via state assessments are used in high-stakes evaluations of schools, students and teachers. The state’s school tier ratings depend on these tests. Teachers careers depend these tests. Students’ college and career prospects depend on these tests. These test vendors should be held to the highest standards with respect to collection and use of all student data entrusted to them—whether via state assessment products or other products, applications or services purchased by the State of Illinois or local education agencies in Illinois.
We present our concerns about each organization in more detail below:
In July 2019 Pearson announced that four months previously (March 2019), the Federal Bureau of Investigation had discovered in the course of another investigation that Pearson’s AIMSweb 1.0 product had been hacked in November of 2018. Nationwide more than one million students and staff at 13,000 K-12 and higher ed institutions were affected by this massive breach. Student names, emails, birth dates and school identification numbers were exposed; in some cases staff data was also breached. Some of the data was collected as far back as 2001.
Based on media reports, at least 45 school districts in Illinois and a minimum of 80,000 Illinois students are known to be part of this breach, but these numbers are almost certainly an underestimate of totals because not all districts have announced the breach publicly, and it is likely that the stored data from every school that used the AIMSweb 1.0 product was hacked.
Chicago Public Schools admitted via email to our organization that they were affected, but they have never published a list of schools or the number of victims and have said they are notifying individual families by post.
Pearson is now the subject of a multi-state class action lawsuit; families, including some Illinois parents, are suing them for negligence in insufficiently protecting their children’s sensitive data from a cyberattack.
Wall Street Journal. “Pearson Hack Exposed Details on Thousands of U.S. Students,” July 31, 2019
Techcrunch. “Education software maker Pearson says data breach affected thousands of accounts in the US,” July 31, 2019
Chicago Tribune. “Security breach exposes personal information of more than 50,000 past and present Naperville-area students,” Aug. 6, 2019
Chicago Tribune. “Lawsuit: Data breach at publishing giant compromised data on a million students, including tens of thousands in Chicago area,” Sept. 6 2019.
The College Board sells student data as part of their Student Search Service for $.47/student, including names, contact info, test score range and answers to survey questions, including self-reported grades. The US Department of Education warned education agencies about these data sales in 2018. And Illinois state law bars vendors from selling or renting data collected from students (105 ILCS 85) and bars any sale of data from children under 16 without consent of a parent (325 ILCS 17).
Students are told participating in the search service will help them find colleges and scholarship opportunities. However, the buyers of this data are not just colleges and universities, but also for-profit orgs of limited educational value. In addition, colleges and universities are now purchasing large volumes of data on students that they know are unlikely to be accepted in order to inflate their applicant numbers, which results in lowering their admission rates and increase their selectivity rankings.
US Department of Education. Privacy Technical Assistance Center. “Technical Assistance on Student Privacy for State and Local Educational Agencies When Administering College Admissions Examinations,” PTAC-FAQ 9. May 2018.
New York Times. “For Sale: Survey Data on Millions of High School Students,” July 29, 2018.
Washington Post. “Student tracking, secret scores: How college admissions offices rank prospects before they apply,” Oct. 14, 2019.
Wall Street Journal. “For Sale: SAT-Takers’ Names. Colleges Buy Student Data and Boost Exclusivity,” Nov. 5, 2019
Please specify how your funding request directly contributes to the following broad category. Include specific metrics you plan to use to track the outcome and provide the estimated numeric impact in FY21 that would result from the funding.
Students should not be asked to sacrifice the security and privacy of their personally-identifiable information and educational records in exchange for receiving a free, appropriate public education, and, as stated above, Before any additional dollars are appropriated to either Pearson or the College Board, we urge the Illinois State Board of Education to perform a thorough investigation of how each organization is treating student data in their possession.