The importance of a unique student identifier in a school district is clear. When students move from one school to another, the identifier stays with the student, and information in the file can be merged and accessed as needed. As student records are transferred from the district to the state level, the unique student identifier becomes even more important. In order to have an effective system of unique student identifiers, there must be a locator system available in which all student names are kept along with key identification information so that matches between students and identifiers can be made. This locator system, whether kept at the district or state level, should be designed to easily allow education staff to locate a student identifier for an enrolling student if one has already been assigned or to assign a new identifier if one is needed. A well-designed state-level student record system should be able to merge student files from year to year. In addition, the state-level system must be able to find students who have moved to other districts within the state. One advantage of such a system is that the state education agency can identify students previously misreported as dropouts.
There are four possible ways to assign unique state student identification numbers.
- Social Security Number (SSN). Some states use the student's SSN as the unique identifier, since most children are now assigned SSNs at a very early age. In the states that use SSNs, an attorney general's opinion, legislative authority, or state board of education authority typically has been secured first. There are many advantages to using the SSN, which is generally considered unique on a nationwide basis. The assignment and maintenance of the SSN system is handled by the federal government; thus, the burden of determining an identifier and assigning it is reduced. The parent and student can assist in providing the SSN when transferring from one school to another, and it is easier for them to remember. When students move across states, those states using SSNs can easily verify records. Postsecondary application processes are also simplified when secondary schools can provide a SSN on transcripts. A further advantage is that SSNs can be used to share information or conduct studies across agencies that use it. Some states exchange family information across agencies to determine eligibility for services. On the other hand, some parents are uncomfortable providing their child's SSN, and others strongly oppose its use. Individuals cannot be required to provide a SSN except for a few purposes such as federal loan eligibility or tax status. A very small number of students will not have a SSN. To use SSNs, the state education agency would have to provide an alternative identifier to parents or students who refuse or are unable to provide it. Even if SSNs are not used as the identifiers, student record system planners should consider collecting and including them in the locator database. The added value afforded makes the effort worthwhile.
- Algorithm to Assign Identifiers. An algorithm could be devised that encrypts the student's name, birthdate, gender, place of birth, and possibly other data elements to create a unique combination that can be used as a student identifier. The algorithm would be kept secure to protect the contents of the identifier. An advantage to using an algorithm is that it can be distributed as a software application to schools for use at the time of registration. Parents and students would not have to know the identifier, and registrars would not have to contact prior schools. On the other hand, the required length of the identifier to ensure uniqueness might be excessive, and changes or mistakes in the data elements used would result in incorrect identifiers.
- State-Assigned Identifiers. Some states have created a pool of identifiers and provided these to school districts for assignment to students. The number itself carries no meaning, except that it was assigned to the school district. The expectation is that this identifier will stay with the student as long as he or she remains in school in the state. Some states that use this method require only the student identifier (without the student's name) on the student record sent to the state education agency. The school district is responsible for ensuring that the correct identifier is always included in the student's record. In other states, the student identifier list is maintained by the state, and districts that receive a student transferring in from another district within the state can obtain the student's identifier through a locator system at the state education agency. One advantage of this type of identifier is that the state education agency controls the characteristics of the identifiers, and can verify their validity. Uniqueness is assured. Further, the identifiers can be kept separate from confidential data sources. A disadvantage of such a system is that school districts must rely upon the state education agency for their identifiers. Providing access to identifiers and ensuring the ability to assign them at registration requires sound management.
- Locally-Assigned Identifiers. One way to use existing student identifiers is to assign a school and district identifier to the beginning of locally-assigned student numbers. One advantage is that local control is maintained. Districts are not required to make changes in their identifier system, and historical local files continue to be compatible with the identifiers. Also, an identifier can be assigned at the time of registration for new students. On the other hand, uniqueness across the state is not likely. Mobile students would receive a new identifier in each district/school. The formats and characteristics of local identifiers would have to be considered when establishing the parameters for acceptable identifiers. Because of these problems, this option has not generally been used for assigning state identifiers.
The following must be considered in order to select the most appropriate student identifier:
- The level at which the identifier must be unique.
- The burden of assigning numbers to existing students.
- The need for verification.
- The need for confidentiality.
Once you have determined what unique student identifier you will use, you should consider how schools receiving a student from elsewhere in the district or state will find out what is his or her identifier. States and school districts using unique identifiers have various solutions for making the number known to receiving schools; however, the easiest is to provide a locator system online protected by passwords. Such a system should contain key information about each student, such as name, birthdate, place of birth, race/ethnicity and sex, as well as the identifier. Some organizations also include the Social Security Number in the locator system, even if it is not to be used as the unique identifier. Having the SSN helps to ensure that the correct identifier is found if there are more than one student with the same basic information.