October 17, 2019; Marion Republican
The College Entrance Examination Board (The College Board) is a membership nonprofit with a budget of $900 million. It receives $1 billion in revenue to prepare students for institutions of higher learning. Now, several Illinois lawmakers want the organization to be investigated regarding the alleged sale of students’ data.
The College Board offers the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), which high school students take as part of applying to colleges—although Nonprofit Quarterly has noted the trend of colleges eliminating the SAT requirement. The College Board is a vendor for the Illinois State Board of Education with a $29 million contract to provide the SAT and PSAT. Last year, the state paid them $2 million in fees to College Board to cover the Advanced Placement tests for low-income students.
Nine lawmakers have called on Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul to investigate how The College Board disseminates the data it gathers from those who take its tests.
“Although the College Board asks students for their consent (including those under age 18) for disclosing their data to colleges, universities and scholarship providers, they do not inform either students or parents that they will be providing the data to these organizations in exchange for a monetary payment,” the lawmakers said in a letter to Raoul.
Red flags were raised a year ago by the FBI regarding the vulnerability of various education technology, and the threat to students’ privacy across the grades, elementary through secondary and higher learning. Following stories by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others, Illinois lawmakers decided to probe the actual data trail as part of a reinforcement of the Student Online Personal Protection Act, which prevents the sale or leasing of student information.
Students sitting for the standardized tests fill out survey questions along with the exams. The data that is sold contains, along with test scores, their interests and extracurricular activities. Todd Iverson, a rep from The College Board, stated when he appeared before the state Senate Judiciary Committee this past spring that access to students in Illinois can be obtained for 45 cents per student.
Last week, Sara Sympson, a spokeswoman for The College Board, refuted Iverson’s statement that data was sold. In an email, she stated the organization does not “sell” data, but instead, makes it available “under strict licensing agreements with colleges, scholarship partners, and nonprofit organizations.” Those organizations can only use that data for “noncommercial and education-related” uses. Sympson asserts that students must also opt in to having their information made available, and once permission from the student expires, the data is supposed to be destroyed.
Attorney General Raoul is looking at the matter, which, besides flouting the Student Online Personal Protection Act, may be breaking the law with any student under 16 who takes the test. Those younger students are covered by the Children’s Privacy Protection and Parental Empowerment Act, which requires parental permission to sell students’ data.
The attorney general’s office is working with students and their families to complete consumer complaint forms to move the investigation along, according to Cassie Creswell of the Illinois Families for Public Schools advocacy group.—Marian Conway