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Big Data Means Kids' "Permanent Records" Might Never Be Erased

Published: October 24, 2013
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Source: Motherboard

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It is the same thing with permanent electronic records of, say, a seventh graders' discipline problems. Sure, that data may help teachers better plan for disruptive kids and better structure a classroom curriculum. But will the permanence and shareability of student records negatively affect that child's future academic prospects years down the road? It's a more than fair query when, as the Times notes, many school districts have "no policies in place to govern who could see the information, how long it would be kept or whether it would be shared with the colleges to which students applied."  

The higher education scenario is particularly harrowing and illustrative of the potential effects of digital permanent records. We know that college admissions offices (as well as scholarship funds) are keenly interested in the most minute details of prospective students' lives, to the point where a Kaplan survey found more than four out of five admissions officers evaluate students' social media presence. Not surprisingly, as electronic student data has proliferated with the help of technologies like inBloom's, higher education institutions have become obsessed with mining as much information about prospective students as possible, turning the admissions process into what the Chronicle of Higher Educationcalls "a 'Moneyball' approach to college." 

What happens, then, when a middle school student gets a word like "perpetrator" or a phrase like "principal watch list" on their inBloom permanent record and—like an indelible mark on an electronic credit report—cannot get it expunged, even though it has absolutely nothing to do with who he is as a high school senior? Worse, what happens if that student doesn't even know that word or phrase is there on his record? Will that permanent record nonetheless be shared with colleges? Will that specific data point be run through an admissions officer's algorithm that uses it to negatively score the student's application? Will that data point then be the difference between a college acceptance letter and a rejection letter?

Similar questions abound. Will permanent data points not merely micro-tailor school curriculum for students, but also wrongly condemn certain students to a slower track even after they've overcome a few bumps in the academic road? Will those permanent records end up not only in the hands of for-profit educational technology companies, but also other for-profit corporations—say, health and life insurers—that want to evaluate populations with whom they will eventually do business?

Going down this rabbit hole of possibilities can evoke nostalgia among those of us who grew up in the pre-computer era and can recall the gradual changeover from paper to digital. There were certainly frustrating inefficiencies in all that paper, but there was also a bit of comfort; we knew that the physicality of records meant one piece of information (say a speeding ticket in a different state) couldn't so easily find its way into another pile of information (the file cabinet of our home state's DMV) and therefore couldn't necessarily follow us forever, generating points on our license and raising our insurance premiums. 

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