A chilling, must-read study report just released (May 2015) by the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA), “Education Suspended: The Use of High School Disciplinary Records in College Admissions” should serve as a clarion call to advocates and policymakers to broaden their focus on what exactly is at issue with respect to student data privacy and how we must move forward as a sector to address it. Indeed, the issue at hand is the apparently widespread practice of sharing by school districts of individual student’s disciplinary records with colleges as part of the admissions process and how admissions officers at those colleges then use that data to either deny admissions to students or impose burdensome conditions upon those who are admitted. While more high-quality research is surely necessary to shed better light on these practices, these findings are alarming enough to demand urgent action.
Consider these key findings:
- 73% of college and universities collect high school disciplinary information as part of the admissions process.
- 89% of colleges and universities that collect high school disciplinary information use it to inform their admissions decision making, including to deny admissions.
- If an applicant is denied admission because of a disciplinary violation, only 65% of schools notify that applicant of the reason for denial.
- 75% of colleges have an appeals process in place if an applicant is rejected because of a disciplinary violation, but only 44% formally notify the applicant of the process.
- 50% of high schools disclose disciplinary information about their students to colleges in at least some cases.
- The guidance counselor is the only person to review disclosed information to colleges in 41% of the cases where the high school chooses to disclose disciplinary information.
- According to the study authors, schools and school districts define misbehaviors differently and attach different sanctions to similar behaviors – and significant disparities in suspensions and expulsions are well-documented (particularly affecting African American students and students with disabilities).
Perhaps most concerning of all:
- According to the study authors, there are no empirical data linking high school disciplinary infractions to safety on college campuses, presumably the rationale for requesting high school disciplinary data by colleges and universities in the first place.
- Only 25% of colleges that collect disciplinary information have formal written policies to guide their use of it.
- Only 37% of high schools maintain formal, written policies regarding disclosure of student disciplinary records to colleges.
- According to the study authors, more than 3 million children per year are suspended from school and an additional 100,000 are expelled.
Quite simply, this practice must cease. School districts must adopt policies that clarify what information they are allowed to share as part of the college admissions process and, for their part, colleges and universities should be barred from using high school disciplinary records in admissions. Student data privacy advocates should note well that this is neither an issue created by educational technology, nor associated with any technology company – and is allowable under current FERPA privacy protections. As I have argued before, school district practice represents the weakest link in protecting student data privacy and security. A singular focus by advocates on legislating company practice simply doesn’t serve to fully address the issue. If the findings of this study doesn’t put an exclamation point to that assertion, I’m not sure what possibly could.