by David Safier
NOTE: I'm cautious by nature, so I won't state that I know something with absolute certainty unless I'm absolutely certain. Having said that, based on the research I've done and the data I have in my possession, I can say I have a great deal of confidence in the accuracy of everything I've written in this post.
India-based workers who scored and commented on student papers from Arizona Virtual Academy (AZVA) had access to the names and other specific information about the students whose papers they were grading. I was told by Mary Gifford, the western regional Vice President for student services with K12 Inc., AZVA's parent corporation, that papers were "scrubbed" of personal information before they went to India. Since then, I have learned that the process of transmitting papers and information to and from India included the names of students on their papers as well as Grade Tracking Sheets with class lists containing the names and school IDs of the students. Student information didn't slip through due to someone's carelessness. The names were part of the communication process between AZVA and India.
Nine other schools run by K12 Inc. in states across the country also sent student papers to India and used the same basic system of identification. In addition, four schools run by K12 Inc. used tutoring services based in India where the students and the tutors wrote comments back and forth in real time. The tutors, who knew the names of the students they were working with, used common American names during the tutoring sessions instead of using their real names. So far as I know, AZVA did not use the tutoring service.
In my original post on this topic, I discussed the Arizona law stating that all charter school staff with direct or indirect teaching duties must obtain Fingerprint Clearance Cards. Other personnel must have Fingerprint Criminal History Checks run on them. I wondered in that and later posts if sending papers to India with student information attached violated the letter or spirit of the fingerprinting laws. Now, based on information I've received from Rep. Phil Lopes (D-Tucson), the Minority Leader of the Arizona State house, it appears that AZVA may also be in violation of Arizona law due to its outsourcing of materials containing personal information about students to another country, regardless of the specific rules about fingerprinting and background checks.
If anything I write is incorrect, I hope K12 will correct the record either by contacting me or by writing a comment at the end of this post. A few days ago, I left a phone message for Mary Gifford giving her the opportunity to respond to my last post about outsourcing at AZVA, and she has not responded.
This is as complete a statement of the relationship between AZVA, K12 and Indian paper scorers and tutors as I can create using the information I have at hand.
- In the fall of 2006, AZVA began sending papers from middle school students to India to be "marked." K12 Inc., the parent company of AZVA, contracted with Socratic Learning, Inc., a company based in Plano, Texas. The actual work was completed by Tutors Worldwide (TWWI). According to TWWI's Who we are page:
Incepted in January 2004 as a fully owned subsidiary of Socratic Learning Inc.(USA), we are among the first companies in India to provide online educational support in English Language Arts, Science and Math to educational districts, schools and the student community worldwide.
- The middle school students sent their completed assignments to AZVA teachers, who made them available for uploading by TWWI.
- A complete essay assignment that went to TWWI usually contained three separate parts sent at three different times: a brainstorming assignment, a first draft and a final draft. The India-based TWWI employee commented on the assignments and gave number scores for five traits on the first and final drafts -- (1) Purpose, (2) Ideas and Content, (3) Organization, (4) Language and Word Choice, and (5) Sentences and Mechanics. The scores were totaled, and that number was the suggested grade for the assignment.
- The papers commented on and scored by TWWI employees included the students' names. The India-based company also had Grade Tracking Sheets for each class submitting papers. These sheets had a list of as many as 180 students including their names and the names of their teachers.
- When the TWWI employee finished the student assignment, the suggested scores were listed after the student's name on the Grade Tracking Sheets. The paper was sent back to AZVA. The AZVA teacher either made the suggested score the student's grade or rescored the paper. The graded paper was then sent back to the student.
- AZVA didn't inform parents that their children's papers were being sent to India. When the first assignment was returned, some parents noticed that their children were being referred to in the comments using the wrong gender and that the language used in some of the comments didn't sound like it was written by a U.S. resident. The parents used an electronic communications platform provided by AZVA to complain among themselves about the outsourcing of papers. Then some of them complained to AZVA.
- AZVA gave parents some kind of assurances that the papers would no longer be sent to India.However, middle school papers continued to be sent to India for the entire 2006-2007 school year, then high school papers were sent during the 2007-2008 school year. (Note: the one piece of information I don't have adequate confirmation for is the statement that parents were assured papers would no longer be sent to India. However, I believe it to be true.)
- K12 referred to the people in India responsible for overseeing the program as "Lead Teachers" and "Secondary Teachers," though I was told by Mary Gifford that these people were only scorers, not teachers or tutors.
- Along with the Grade Tracking sheets mentioned above, employees at TWWI had access to what I believe is the complete enrollment list for AZVA. It contains over 3000 names of students mainly ranging in ages from 4 to 18, with a few 19 and 20 year olds. The enrollment spreadsheet includes the students' names, home addresses and phone numbers, parents' names and email addresses and information relating to the students' economic status as well as educational strengths and weaknesses.
- AZVA was one of ten K12 schools sending papers to India to be commented on and scored. The others are AGORA (Agora Cyber Charter School, Pennsylvania), CAVA (California Virtual Academy), COVA (Colorado Virtual Academy), CVCS (Chicago Virtual Charter School), IDVA (Idaho Virtual Academy), MNVA (Minnesota Virtual Academy), OHVA (Ohio Virtual Academy), PAVCS (Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School) and WAVA (Washington Virtual Academies).
- In addition to the paper scoring, four of these schools -- AGORA, CAVA, COVA and IDVA -- used Socratic Learning's Tutoring services. This meant that students at these four schools engaged in real time written communication about English and Math with tutors at TWWI. A typical math session might involve a problem that student and tutor can both see on their computer screens and a back-and-forth written discussion about how to work through and solve the problem. The tutors knew the names of the students they were working with. However, the tutors used anglicized names such as Gary or Angela rather than their Indian names.
- K12 severed its ties with Socratic Learning sometime in the middle of 2007 and began using another company, Tutor Vista for similar services, which it used through the 2007-2008 school year.
It's clear that K12 was aware that personal information about its students was being transmitted to India along with the papers. The transmission of student names was built in to the process K12 used to track the papers as they went back and forth between India and the U.S. It's also clear that some if not all of this was done without the knowledge and consent of the parents.
But let's leave the ethics of a school deceiving parents aside and look at the legal concerns involved with sending student papers and student information to people in another country who have not been fingerprinted or had background checks run on them.
I discussed the issue of fingerprinting and background checks in my original post on this topic. (Go to the section titled, "Arizona Laws and Regulations about Fingerprinting"), so I won't go into that issue in detail here. However, until now, I haven't had enough information about state regulations concerning outsourcing of grading to other countries, so this is the first time I've written about this topic.
I asked Rep. Phil Lopes (D-Tucson), the Minority Leader of the Arizona State house, if there were any state regulations concerning the outsourcing of student work. His response was this:
According to the precedent set by the State's general policy the outsourcing of grading assistance is not contrary to procurement policies as long as personally identifiable information is not included on the data transmitted.
He clarified his statement by setting up a hypothetical situation:
Changing the variables, let's suppose a State agency, as a part of its operations, processes occupational tests (professional licensing or some similar operation), and that its contractor happens to process such tests outside of the US. In this scenario, the test information and how the applicant scored would indeed be personal information. But the identifying information associated with the applicant, e.g., their name, address, phone numbers, account numbers, SSN (perhaps to determine eligibility for the test), credit Card number (to pay for test) all would surely be considered personal information, therefore bringing the Off shoring Clause squarely into play - making it so the contractor could not process any of this information over seas. However, should the agency's processes include the removal of any personal information from the test taker's information (reducing the applicant to a discrete ID number) prior to transmittal to the contractor, the processing would only include test information linked to some sort of unique ID number that was only rendered meaningful once the data was transmitted back to the agency. Since no personal information was transmitted in this regard, this approach would not evoke the Offshoring Clause.
Lopes' direct response and the hypothetical situation he used are absolutely clear. AZVA transmitted "identifying information" about the students such as "their name, address, phone numbers," "therefore bringing the Off shoring Clause squarely into play."
I'm not a lawyer, so I can't speak to the legal ramifications of AZVA and K12's actions when they sent personal, identifying information about AZVA students to India, but I'm convinced the practice deserves serious scrutiny from one or more branches of the Arizona government. The Arizona State Board for Charter Schools should be the first agency looking into this matter. It should require AZVA and K12 to produce all relevant files, records, contracts and email related to the transmission of student papers and student personal information to India.
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