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Local schools question security and necessity of cloud data initiative

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Test scores, grades, attendance records and other personal information will be posted to a cloud-based server connecting with all New York schools expected to go live in March. Many schools, including some local ones, are skeptical about the site’s security.

Though many districts question the site’s necessity, participation is linked with funding for the federal Race to the Top program. Even if a school opts out, its students’ information still will be put online and the district won’t be granted access to the information.

“Security has always been a high priority so I certainly understand why people are worried about putting so much information out there,” Sackets Harbor Central School Superintendent Frederick E. Hall said. “School records should remain private. They are more than just grades.”

New York has signed up with inBloom, an Atlanta-based company funded by the Gates Foundation, which will create a system that stores student information on servers in the so-called cloud. It’s seen as a tool to track student progress, personalize instruction and identify students who may be in danger of not graduating. Parents also can monitor their children’s progress.

New York has maintained a statewide database since 2004, and many districts already contract with third-party vendors for software for information such as report cards and transportation. Ken Wagner, associate state education commissioner, said inBloom will fill the need for a parent portal in the roughly half of districts without one and give those districts with existing portals a choice.

Carthage Central School Superintendent Peter J. Turner said the district will be part of the system, but the school will primarily use the School Tools Web system it already has in place.

“We’ve made our selection of which dashboard we’ll use, but we will choose not to use it,” Mr. Turner said. “If you have a system that already works for you, why wouldn’t you use it?”

Mr. Hall said it feels more secure to grant access to student information on a local level.

“We make the matches, they go through our technical systems; we can do all of those things in house,” Mr. Hall said. “We’re very good at making sure only the right people have access to our Web portal.”

Many school districts say there are too many questions to comfortably support the database. Despite losing their access to more than $700 million in Race to the Top funding, about three dozen of the state’s 695 districts say they won’t use the portal.

Districts that withdrew from Race to the Top must return any unspent grant money.Their districts’ data still will be sent to inBloom, Mr. Wagner said. Parents can’t opt out of student data systems that are consistent with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act such as the EngageNY Portal.

“If parents were to opt their children out of these types of systems, everything from course scheduling to transportation to school lunches to high school transcripts for college applications would be impacted,” Jonathan D. Burman, state Education Department spokesman, wrote in an email to the Times. “It would be virtually impossible — or extraordinarily more expensive — to conduct much of the day-to-day data management work of schools.”

Jack J. Boak, district superintendent of the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said he doesn’t believe the state would allow a permeable security system for the program.

“This data will be secure. I know there is concern everywhere with breaches in security if you have a credit card or a debit card, but a lot of thought went into this,” Mr. Boak said. “There are going to be several layers of security. I don’t think anyone would take a chance that this could be used badly.”

Though several north country schools expressed concern, none said it would be withdrawing from Race to the Top.

“We became aware that a number of districts in the south New York who have issue with storing details about students,” Mr. Kettrick said. “We plan to watch with concern how this works out. We are not planning on making any changes to the district.”

Mr. Hall said area schools will be watching the progress closely.

“North country schools are fiercely compliant. I know there is controversy around this program, but schools will still send in their required data to the state,” Mr. Hall said.

State lawyers are due to respond this week to a legal challenge by 12 New York City parents seeking to block the state from sharing student information for the database.

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