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Education Reporter

Big Brother in the Classroom
New ID system will track Massachusetts students

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LAWRENCE, MA -- The Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE) will begin issuing ID numbers to about one million public school children this fall through a new computerized tracking system called the Student Information Management System (SIMS). The system will require school districts to provide at least 35 bits of information on each student, including scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests, career plans, race, and other personal data.

The Massachusetts Eagle-Tribune reported on August 22 that SIMS will create permanent records that will follow students throughout their years in public school. Information that formerly remained with the individual school districts will now be under state jurisdiction.

The DOEs chief technology officer, Gregory Nadeau, told the Eagle-Tribune: "Instead of having access to summary information on school districts, the state will now have the ability to do statistical analysis." He explained that SIMS will allow the state to isolate information in order to determine what programs work best and where to allocate resources.

The system is expected to streamline data collection and simplify the tracking of children from one school district to another. SIMS will eventually allow students to log onto any personal computer and access customized homework pages and personal homework folders.

The system has been under development since 1996 when Massachusetts lawmakers directed the DOE to adopt "a system for evaluating on an annual basis the performance of both public school districts and individual public schools." Many officials, however, claim they knew nothing about SIMS until recently.

State Rep. Brian Dempsey (D) says he just learned of the program in August this year, and he questions why the DOE needs to collect data on individual students. "I think we should be improving what were doing in the classroom," he told the Eagle Tribune. "I dont think getting specific statistics will result in a better product."

Michael Sweeney, a lawyer and school committeeman in Lawrence, Massachusetts, called the process of identifying all the states school children "outrageous" and termed it "Big Brotherism." He noted that "a third of the information they are collecting is totally unnecessary. Any time the government starts centrally collecting information, people should worry."

While Nadeau insists that his department is taking security requirements "very seriously," the DOEs own handbook points out that SIMS data may be shared with other state or local agencies without consent, and that it will be possible for federal agencies, such as the Justice Department or Immigration and Naturalization Service, to subpoena the state for information.

Some parents and officials say they are upset with the stealth manner in which the system was developed and implemented. "Its existence has not been discussed much at the local level," noted the Eagle Tribune. Said committeeman Sweeney: "[It] slipped under peoples radar screens."

Massachusetts officials point out that their state is not the only one introducing such a system. "About 20-25 other states have implemented or are developing similar systems."

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