New Guidance Protects Student Privacy, Parents’ Rights

New Guidance Protects Student Privacy, Parents’ Rights

New Guidance from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) is bolstering protection for student privacy, while sending a warning to organizations who might abuse the ACT and SAT testing systems for your child’s data.

Traditionally, students registered and paid for the tests on their own with parental consent. The nature of the privacy relationship between the student “customer” and the testing organization was clear.

But over time school districts began registering and sometimes paying for the tests for all interested students as a means to encourage more students to take the tests. Some districts even use these exams in place of required annual assessments, requiring the SAT or ACT of all students. But these practices have confused the relationship between the student, the school system “customer,” and the test providers.

In May, the Privacy Technical Assistance Center of the DOE issued updated legal guidance addressing privacy concerns at two points in the process: when school districts register students for the tests, and when accompanying pretest surveys are administered.

Test Registration
If schools without parental consent grant permission to share personally identifiable information (PII) with the third-party organizations who seek it (such as colleges and scholarship organizations), they violate federal student privacy laws. The 11-page DOE document highlights the privacy protections offered by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Those provisions include prohibitions against sharing a student’s PII with any third party company or organization for other-than-educational reasons.

A school sharing a student’s information in the registration process is perfectly acceptable, according to the guidance. But if the ACT or SAT testing service then sells or shares that PII with third parties, that constitutes a breach of federal law. The document clarifies that such information can be collected and shared only with parental consent.

Pretest Surveys on the ACT and SAT
Both the ACT and SAT offer a pretest survey including questions on a student’s “religious practices, affiliations, and beliefs, and student and parent income,” according to an Education Week blog on the issue. Students and sometimes teachers fail to realize the survey portion is completely voluntary, and that declining to respond to the personal questions will have no impact on a student’s scores. What’s more, the survey responses may generate additional PII that cannot be shared without parental notification or consent.

The new guidance from the DOE calls on school district personnel to “make abundantly clear to parents and students that participating in those pretest surveys is optional,” according to the blog.

In short, the guidance protects parental rights and student privacy by making sure testing companies are not relying on permission given by school registrants (on behalf of the students being registered) to share private student information with outside organization partners. Such permission must come from the student’s parents.

This guidance is a welcome shift and highlights the importance of parental rights in protecting your student’s privacy from organizations who might partner with your local school district.

Know Your Rights
The Parental Rights Foundation highlights this guidance so that you can best know and stand up for your own rights. If you have a student preparing to take one of these tests in the coming year, be sure they know the survey questions are optional. And make sure your school knows they need your permission before your student’s information can go to those third party organizations (that is, other than the school and the testing organization itself).

Generally, there is nothing wrong with these outside organizations. They want to tell applicable students about their college, or about scholarship opportunities. But it is up to you, the parent, whether or not to give them your child’s information in the first place.

Thank you for standing with the Parental Rights Foundation as we try to protect children by empowering parents with the knowledge you need.


Michael Ramey
Director of Communications & Research