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The Forum Guide to Data Ethics
NCES 2010-801
March 2010


The National Forum on Education Statistics (the Forum) is pleased to present this Forum Guide to Data Ethics. One goal of the Forum is to improve the quality of education data gathered for use by policymakers and program decisionmakers. An approach to furthering this goal has been to pool the collective experiences of Forum members to produce "best practice" guides in areas of high interest to those who collect, maintain, and use data about elementary and secondary education. The ethical use and management of education data is one of those high interest areas.

Each and every day, educators collect and use data about students, staff, and schools. Some of these data originate in individual student and staff records that are confidential or otherwise sensitive. And even those data that are a matter of public record, such as aggregate school enrollment, need to be accessed, presented, and used in an ethically responsible manner. While laws set the legal parameters that govern data use, ethics establish fundamental principles of "right and wrong" that are critical to the appropriate management and use of education data in the technology age. This guide reflects the experience and judgment of experienced data managers; while there is no mandate to follow these principles, the authors hope that the contents will prove a useful reference to others in their work.

In This Guide

  • Part I introduces the concept of data ethics in the field of education and describes the document's purpose, intended audience, and layout and design conventions.
  • Part II presents the Forum Code of Data Ethics through real-world examples(vignettes) and explanatory text (discussion).
  • Appendix A lists other publications from the Forum that may be useful to school, district, or state education agency staff who are considering data ethics issues.
  • Appendix B provides a sample "whistleblower" policy as adapted from a document developed by a local education agency.
  • Appendix C explains how memoranda of understanding and acceptable use statements can be valuable tools for describing and enforcing data usage agreements between two or more parties—and are often used to formally agree to behavioral practices.
  • Appendix D provides a summary of the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

The National Cooperative Education Statistics System

The work of the Forum is a key aspect of the National Cooperative Education Statistics System (Cooperative System). The Cooperative System was established to produce and maintain, with the cooperation of the states, comparable and uniform educational information and data that are useful for policymaking at the federal, state, and local levels. To assist in meeting this goal, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), within the U.S. Department of Education, established the National Forum on Education Statistics (the Forum) to improve the collection, reporting, and use of elementary and secondary education statistics. The Forum deals with issues in education data policy, sponsors innovations in data collection and reporting, and provides technical assistance to improve state and local data systems.

Development of Forum Products

Members of the Forum establish task forces to develop best–practice guides in data-related areas of interest to federal, state, and local education agencies. NCES provides management oversight of this work, but the content comes from the collective experience of the state and school district task force members who review all products iteratively throughout the development process. Documents prepared, reviewed, and approved by task force members undergo a formal public review. This public review consists of focus groups with representatives of the product's intended audience, review sessions at relevant regional or national conferences, or technical reviews by acknowledged experts in the field. In addition, all draft documents are posted on the Forum website prior to publication so that any interested individuals or organizations can provide feedback. After the task force oversees the integration of public review comments and reviews the document a final time, publications are subject to examination by members of the Forum standing committee sponsoring the project. Finally, the entire Forum (approximately 120 members) reviews and formally votes to approve all documents prior to publication.