When your teens sign up for the SAT and ACT college entrance exams, what are they really signing up for?
That’s one of the questions being asked by two congressmen who head a committee that’s reviewing data collection and privacy practices of the two companies that administer the SAT and ACT exams.
Reps. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, sent a letter in late May to the College Board, which administers the SAT, and its competitor, ACT Inc.
Among other things, the testing companies were asked whether they make students aware that sharing their personal data is optional and will not influence admission to college, how secure the data storage is, and how the revenue generated from the data collection services is used.
The request comes amid a growing public nervousness about identity theft and privacy protections. The two congressmen, co-chairmen of the Bi-Partisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, introduced a bill in May to expand a children’s privacy law to include teenagers. However, their proposal doesn’t currently cover nonprofit companies, such as the College Board and ACT Inc.
Both testing services collect data from millions of high school students each year as they register for the standardized tests. The companies then sell the names and some personal information to colleges, scholarship programs and other educational organizations, which use the lists in marketing to targeted applicants.
This helps explain why your high school senior-to-be is receiving letters, postcards and marketing brochures by the boatload from colleges, many of which you’ve probably never heard of.
Here’s how the data process works, using the SAT as an example: When students register online for the SAT, they completes a lengthy questionnaire.
There is also a box they can click on if they want to give permission to the College Board’s Student Search Service to share personal data — including name, address, gender, birth date, school, grade level and intended college major — with colleges and universities, scholarship services and other educational programs.
Some of this data are also used by the testing service for its own research.
The College Board does not share course grades, test scores, parental income, phone numbers and Social Security numbers with these institutions, although organizations “may request student information based on criteria such as score range (and) geographical location,” the College Board says in its SAT registration guide. The ACT uses a similar system with similar guidelines for its Educational Opportunity Service.
The College Board and the ACT defend their practices and say students can choose to opt out of having their information shared. It’s voluntary, and most students opt-in by clicking on the box.
Moreover, the test firms say they do not share data with financial institutions, insurance companies and other commercial businesses. The testing firms’ detailed privacy policies are posted on their websites.
“ACT has the greatest respect for students, and we follow industry standard security measures to protect their privacy,” the organization said in a statement.
“Students and parents should not worry” added Kathleen Steinberg, a spokeswoman for the College Board. She said the idea behind selling student information “is that it is a service to both the students and the schools. It helps students discover schools that might be the perfect fit, and it helps schools discover those students.”
My take: No outrage — unless there’s a “gotcha” discovery by the congressional committee. But, even if there is an opt-out opportunity and protective controls in place to prevent data breaches, it still makes me a bit uncomfortable that the two most reputable names in higher education testing are selling some of our kids’ personal information for targeted marketing purposes. At least prepare your test-taker on how the privacy process works.
Reach Steve Rosen at 816-234-4879 or at email@example.com.