A few months back, a rather startling article appeared in the Education section of The Washington Post. Written by Colorado mother Cheri Kiesecker, who decided to investigate the College Board’s use of student data after seeing the number of personal questions asked on her child’s school-administered PSAT 8/9 test, the piece explains how the College Board has effectively transformed itself into a massive data-collection organization and is profiting from the sale of student information.

The entire article is well worth reading — and I would strongly recommend that anyone who is about to take the PSAT or who has a child about to take the PSAT do so — but one of the most important takeaways is as follows:

[W]hat many parents and schools do not know is that their student’s personal data, including “geographic, attitudinal and behavioral information” can be profiled and accessed by organizations via a license they purchase from the College Board. Yet the College Board’s privacy policy to parents and students claims they do not sell student data. Rather, they sell a license to access a student’s personal data. What is the difference? Indeed, this distinction seems only semantical.

The College Board sells licenses to access the data through a tagging service called College Board Search. The Segment Analysis Service™ is one of three featured tools of the Search, along with the Enrollment Planning Service™, and the Student Search Service®. These are “enhanced tools for smart recruitment.” The College Board’s Authorized Usage Policies states, “Student Search Service in connection with a legally valid program that takes such characteristics into account in furtherance of attaining a diverse student body.”

The pricing for the College Board Search student data tagging service is $0.42* per student, and allows college admission professionals to identify prospective students based on factors such as zip code and race and to “Leverage profiles of College Board test-takers for all states, geomarkets, and high schools.”

Which organizations buy personal student data licenses from the College Board? They are not listed anywhere on the website. A New York Civil Liberties Union fact sheet reveals that the Department of Defense is among the institutions which buys student data for recruiting purposes.

(Note: this statistic was incorrectly listed in the article. The price is actually $.43/student.)

Kiesecker contacted the College Board requesting a thorough explanation of its student-data policies but only received  — big shocker here — a “confusing and evasive response” consisting of standard talking points and empty jargon (The College Board’s security practices reflect established industry standards and are designed to be proactive. Well now, if the CB is being proactive, I can’t imagine what anyone could possibly worry about. Whew! So glad we can all rest easy now.)

As Kiesecker also notes, however:

[O]nly the first five questions on the answer sheet are obligatory, including student name, grade level, sex, date of birth, and student ID number. The remainder of personal questions, including race, religion, military background, GPA, home address, phone, etc. are optional.

Apparently, the PSAT 8/9 test booklets give no indication that most of the questions are optional, nor are proctors required to state it as part of the script they are given by College Board. I would assume the same is true for the test taken by high school juniors.

What is important for eleventh graders to  understand, though, is that “optional” truly does mean “optional,” and that they will not be penalized in the college search if they do not fill out all of the questions.

Ok, got that? Just because questions are there doesn’t mean that you need to fill them all out. Selective answering is a principle that shouldn’t start when the test begins. You want a lesson in real-world critical thinking skills? This is it.