On that first sunny day of this school year, sending my children off with their new backpacks in hand, I never dreamed of how I would be spending this year.

For the better part of eight years I have in full faith sent my children off to their wonderful schools and teachers in anticipation of all that they would learn and participate in while under their care. I never imagined feeling the need to spend my time in research on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, Education Reform and the Preschool to 20 Workforce Information Network or advocating for change in Hartford.

But alas, that is how I have spent this year.

Op-ed submit bug

After months of reading our contracts, memorandums of understanding, many grant applications and our waiver to No Child Left Behind, what I have discovered has not been an easy realization. I do not fault anyone in particular for what we have agreed to be a part of, since most states have agreed to do just the same. I do, on the other hand, greatly admire and thank the state representatives and senators that have taken the time to listen and who have proposed legislation to address some of the following concerns and questions.

Where I do find inadequacies is how we have implemented what we have in our schools and in our state.

Although there are different concerns for different people, my particular area of concern is how we as a state and a nation have unlocked our children’s information for research, “innovative” development of technology, and a whole host of other unknown purposes,  yet have left parents and college students out of the conversation on how their children’s information is being used and accessed.

Schools continue to tell parents that their information is safe under the Family Educational Records Privacy Act. But what they don’t tell you is that federal law was amended at the end of 2011 so that schools may disclose children’s education records under a number of exceptions. It allows for schools to act as a child’s authorized representative without a parents’ knowledge or consent.

I don’t like that. That amendment wasn’t done the right way. Under protest by many in Washington, it was just done.

Who has had access to my child’s records? Where do children’s SBAC tests go when they hit the submit button, and who has access to that? What are the state laws and regulations surrounding the P20-WIN database which will hold personal information on every citizen from before preschool until the time he or she goes to work and then allow third parties to access it for research purposes? How are we informing parents of all of these things? Is there notice and disclosure and breach policies should these systems be hacked?

I see plenty looking out for organizations and foundations and consortiums and ed tech vendors, but who is looking out for the children? Who is also looking out for our teachers and our parents, because they are included in this as well?

We have made a lot of changes in a short amount of time. Things were rushed. But isn’t it more important to not meet a deadline and make sure we are implementing things correctly by first safeguarding our students above all else? I do not think the time was taken in implementing all that we agreed to change and build while balancing information given to parents or regulating things first, or just putting into practice legal protections for the lives these changes effect the most, the children of our state.

For this reason and because I do not have full confidence nor trust in this test, what it is measuring , nor where it goes, or to whom, I feel compelled to say I just do not have enough of a guarantee that this test is as safe as it could be.

I and others have asked the education committee to pass student data privacy laws in our state as many other states have already enacted. That means being honest about what we are going to say is OK and what is not OK for schools to collect, store, and provide outside access to, while providing for notifications and disclosures to be given to parents and a breach response law that is applicable to the state agencies involved — again, as so many other states already have.

In defense of our legislators, our educators and even our administrators I think they sometimes are put in a precarious situation by no fault of their own. It is not they that agreed to do most of this. They are simply following what others have agreed to do. But they can empathize with parents concerns and address them when they arise. What should be simple and easy answers to questions, for reasons unknown to me, are not easily answered. That tells me that something isn’t quite right.

We have allowed for a divide between the State Department of Education and parents, putting administrators, superintendents and teachers in the middle of that divide. I don’t think that is a fair position to put anyone. It doesn’t need to be that way.

The lack of information isn’t all on Washington either. There is no directive by them to not inform parents about many of these things. In fact they have actually given directive of the opposite nature so that parents are included and informed. The decision not to do so falls on the state.

When hiring our next commissioner I hope it is someone who likes talking to parents and sees them as a partner in their children’s education and one who believes in the true spirit of collaboration with all stakeholders — including teachers and parents and even students as well, be they old enough to participate in such dialogue.

As a mom I can honestly say I would rather be asking our legislators to get rid of most of what we have adopted. However, reaching down deep I can see the other side as well. There is value in the data for them and others.

That being said, we are currently out of balance in an all-take no-give situation. I can only point out that these things pose a risk to children. To that there is no dispute. As a result I can therefore only ask the education committee to recognize that risk and to recognize how parents are not being given all that they could be and in the end to pass regulations and laws that makes all of this a lot safer for the children of Connecticut and which would also bring us more into balance together.

There is a public hearing on the student data privacy bill on March 19 starting at 11 a.m. [The legislature’s Education Committee meets in the Legislative Office Building room 2C — Ed.]

I hope that things can change to a more open dialogue so that I can say it is now safe to participate in the state test. For now I just cannot say that is true. It is also why I have to be the one who protects my children from what has been left unprotected thus far and any potential harm that could come from that.

That is my job as a parent. To assess the situation as best I can, sprinkle in my mother instincts and make a decision that is in their best interest.  I also hope that the state can turn toward understanding of the difficulty in that decision for many, work with the committee to enact needed protections  and not continue to return a response to parents that is less than one of compassion.

Jennifer Jacobsen lives in Fairfield and is the mother of three children.

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