Blair beware: Big Blazer is watching you


Nov. 10, 2005, midnight | By Kiran Bhat | 15 years ago

Detailed student database is unnecessary, problematic


This editorial represents the views of the Silver Chips editorial board.

Nowadays, accessing information is just a matter of opening up a computer database and typing a name into a text field. Within seconds, a screen can pop up, complete with a succinct life story of the subject: physical description, fingerprints and criminal history.

The scene repeats itself on cop dramas every night, but it has no place in public schools. By allowing staff the same uninhibited access to students as police have to convicts, MCPS encourages a culture of intrusion and preconception.

The county has gradually institutionalized invasion of student privacy, beginning in 1992 with the School-based Instructional Monitoring System (SIMS).

SIMS established an elaborate record-keeping system for all individuals previously or currently enrolled in the school system. Over the years, SIMS has morphed from a useful tool for tracking student progress into a leviathan, providing teachers and administrators with access to extraneous and unnecessary data.

The most recent addition to SIMS is the database Filemaker Pro, a program specifically created to hold wide ranges of data on large groups of individuals.

Blair teachers and administrators are granted access to the program on their school partitions and use it in increasing numbers each year, according to English for Speakers of Other Languages resource teacher Joseph Bellino, creator of Blair's Filemaker Pro interface.

Entering the name of any Blair student yields benign information, including a recent photo, coursework and student service learning hours. But also on the screen are buttons to access all of the student's quarterly grades in high school, standardized test scores and a suspension record.

The fundamental problem with Filemaker Pro lies in the frightening array of in-depth information it stores. There is really no reason for your math teacher to access your freshman English grade or your SAT writing scores, yet with Filemaker, these tidbits are readily available. While the vast majority of teachers are trustworthy people, it is human nature to give in to curiosity and glance at such information.

Prior to the program's use, teachers had to put in requests for previous grades or talk to other teachers in their department, according to Bellino. Filemaker allows instantaneous access to previous grades in all subjects.

By listing all marks received in high school with no human element or explanation of extenuating circumstances, Filemaker Pro shortchanges students and could potentially escalate grade-sharing from whispering between teachers into an inter-departmental phenomenon.

SIMS and Filemaker Pro also violate privacy when used as tools of overall school performance analysis. According to the MCPS web site, part of the purpose of SIMS is to help "evaluate the total school program." Filemaker Pro uses individual files on students to compile a total data set of standardized test scores, with a six-digit student identification number tagged to each data point. The set is then analyzed for trends.

Anonymous collection is a fairer method that would accomplish the same goal without allowing those compiling the data to view individual test scores. Adding a corresponding identification number to each data point violates the privacy of students for no reason other than convenience.

Another problem with Filemaker Pro is that it inherently fosters academic inequality. Bellino says that the potentially negative data was never intended to lower academic standing. "We're trying to use Filemaker to look at student strengths," he said. He added that the administration opposes the use of Filemaker to demote students who are performing poorly to lower academic tracks.

While this stance is admirable, Bellino doesn't consider the fact that easy access to grades or past coursework could lead to the formation of bias on the part of teachers.

It is naïve to assume that a teacher with prior knowledge about grades would hold a student he knows has done poorly and one he knows has done well to the same standard. If a teacher knows beforehand that one student is not as quick to pick up on the material as another, the most likely response is to hold the former to a lower standard than the latter.

Students are likely to achieve less when teachers expect less of them, so these preconceived notions create an uneven playing field before classes even begin.

While Filemaker Pro streamlines attendance records and helps teachers who genuinely need information on students, it sacrifices some of the fundamental ideals of American education. Students ought to have a fair and equal shot at proving themselves solely by their ability in each individual course they take.

SIMS and Filemaker Pro are almost Orwellian in that they give authority figures access to information that could taint their opinions of students instead of allowing judgments to be based on in-class performance. Such detailed information violates privacy and irrevocably sullies the clean slate all students deserve.




Kiran Bhat. Kiran Bhat is a senior who loves the Washington Redskins, 24, Coldplay, Kanye West, Damien Rice, Outkast and Common (Sense). He aspires to be the next Sanjay Gupta. He will miraculously grow a Guptaesque telegenic face and sculpted body by the age of 30. In … More »

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