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New Rating System Measures Educational Apps for Student Data Privacy and Safety

School districts collaborate with a nonprofit organization to tackle student data privacy challenges in the app world.

A rating system for educational apps has the potential to fill in a student data privacy gap between what school districts can control and what teachers can download.

More than 20 school districts are collaborating with the independent nonprofit Common Sense Media to develop a privacy and safety rubric that will be used to rate apps according to what they do with student data. 

Student data privacy has been a key focus for school districts over the last few years as more of them turn to digital resources created by third-party vendors to help students learn. Teachers often click "yes" that they agree with the privacy policy, but download apps for students without reading what the app developer actually does with student data. 

"The challenge is that while these tools might be very effective in the instructional practice, what these tools do with the data is unknown to our teachers," said Lenny Schad, chief technology information officer at Houston Independent School District. "And as an IT department, we can put rules in place to filter and to block, but it's the Wild Wild West. As long as the teacher has an Internet connection, they can go out and select an application." 

A year ago, Houston Independent School District started developing a privacy rubric for apps to tackle this challenge. But the district quickly realized that school districts around the country shouldn't have to reinvent the wheel by creating their own rubrics. So Schad asked Common Sense Media to take ownership of the project, and the nonprofit brought in other school districts to vet the rubric. Scheduled to be released next year, the rating system is in beta mode, and the rubric will be licensed under Creative Commons so others can use it.

This rubric allows app developers to evaluate how their apps measure up in five categories, including privacy, security, safety and social media, advertising and consumerism, and legal compliance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. For example, the privacy category covers topics including whether they collect personally identifiable information or share it with third parties. 

Once developers fill in their answers, then Common Sense Media will vet the information and post the privacy and safety rating on its Graphite platform, which includes ratings for more than 2,000 apps, games and websites. Then educators can check the rating before they download an app for students.

"What we're trying to do is not only help districts with this issue, but also help developers to understand what are some of the fundamental things that they need to do and to see what are best practices with having a sound implementation around student data privacy needs," said Mike Lorion, general manager of education for Common Sense Media.

The rubric will help facilitate a collaboration between vendors and school districts on student data privacy rather than pitting them against each other. Because a number of large school districts across the country are part of this collaboration, the weight of their buying power will help set up this rubric and rating system as an industry standard, Schad said. School districts including New York City; Los Angeles; Denver; and Fairfax County, Va., are just a few of the participants.

Along with the rating system, school districts including Houston are designing professional development to help their educators understand what student data privacy is and what role they play in keeping student data private. Short "safety moment" videos will tackle topics including personally identifiable information and data mining that teams can watch together during regular meetings.

With 138 student data privacy bills taken up during this year's legislative session, state legislators are working on this issue from the policy angle. But school districts have a responsibility too, and more than 20 of them are taking that on with this privacy rating system.

"It's really important that the districts come up with a part of the solution, and they don't wait for local, federal or state government to mandate, because while they [policymakers] have the very best of intentions, they're also very far removed from what the issue is and the best way to solve it,"  Schad said.