Invasion Of The Databases

Are educators taking record-keeping a bit too far?

For Danielle Littlefield, the Internet Age arrived with a thud. As the mother of a Fairfax County (Va.) public school student, she was appalled to learn about plans for an $11 million computer database that would hold personal and academic information on some 150,000 schoolkids, including her son, Jeff. Among the data: parents' income, report cards, notes about children's behavioral troubles, learning disabilities, and disciplinary problems.

"Did we really need to be saving records of Johnny's schoolyard fight for future employers to look at?" she recalls asking. But the database was built anyway. And now, Littlefield is fighting efforts to link it to the Web, where such data can be zapped to other districts without parental permission.

BATTLE STATIONS. Littlefield is not alone. She and other parents are on the front lines of the battle for privacy as school districts from New York to Oregon begin building sophisticated networks, powered by the Internet and capable of tracking students' behavior from preschool through college. So far, school systems in more than a dozen states have linked their new databases to a nationwide data-exchange program being organized by the Education Dept. under a 1994 congressional mandate. The program would eventually make student information available to other schools, universities, government agencies, and, potentially, to employers.

"It's cheaper and more efficient for schools to collect as much information as possible and share it as widely as possible," says Fairfax County Information Superintendent John Gay. Cheaper and more efficient? Perhaps. But at what price? Cautions Littlefield: "Parents will need to keep up pressure on school districts to make sure their child's problems in the third grade won't cost him his first job."

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