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The Proverbial Permanent Record

October 2014

The debate about student privacy is highly emotional and divisive. One prominent fear is that current and proposed information practices have created a proverbial "permanent record" that will tether students to their pasts and limit opportunities later in life. In popular imagination, a stern principal warns a student that his misdeeds will be recorded in his permanent record unless he behaves better. The idea of a dossier that captures bad behavior and follows students later in life cuts against the cultural norm that children should have the opportunity to experiment and move beyond youthful mistakes.

Stakeholders express concerns that the development of state longitudinal data systems (SLDSs) that link student information over time have created a modern day version of the "permanent record." This discussion points to important places where current information practices conflict with traditional expectations about information flow in public education. However, it also reflects a considerable amount of conflation and misinformation.

Public education institutions and agencies have not created a "permanent record" where individuals can access students’ education histories at a keystroke. Critiques based on this myth suggest — inaccurately — that states collect sensitive student information in a consolidated database freely shared with entities like college admission boards, employers, and corporate profiteers.

This paper examines the concerns captured in the concept of the proverbial "permanent record," how closely these fears match and diverge from information flow surrounding SLDSs, and the mechanisms in place to address these fears.

Worrying aspects of the mythical permanent record are only partly about "permanence" or "recording." They also incorporate the sensitivity of information collected about students, the scope of actors who can access it, and the propriety of using information generated in educational environments to drive decontextualized decisionmaking.

Current legal, technological, and administrative measures address these concerns in part by de-identifying student information, segregating data systems, and limiting the disclosure of personally identifiable information to authorized recipients for specific purposes. This framework gives educational institutions and agencies the responsibility to establish appropriate data governance and make substantive decisions regarding student information.

This paper also notes where the permanent record myth points to issues that have yet to be addressed by policymakers, and recommends mechanisms to clarify the debate and better address stakeholder fears. These include the creation of comprehensive data inventories, increased transparency about information practices, implementation of a baseline privacy infrastructure, and ensuring the accountability of both public and private actors.


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