Skip to content

College Board Sued for Soliciting and Selling Students’ Personal Information

December 12, 2019

On December 10, 2019, an Illinois parent identified as “Mark S.” filed a class action lawsuit against College Board for soliciting and selling personal information from minor students taking College Board’s standardized tests.

The 38-page complaint, filed in US District Court, District of Northern Illinois, Eastern Division, alleges the following (from the introduction of the case):

Every year, hundreds of thousands of students in Illinois and millions of students across the United States take one or more standardized tests provided by Defendant College Board –including, the SAT, PSAT/NMSQT, PSAT 10, PSAT 8/9and Advanced Placement Exams(“AP Exams”)(collectively, the “Standardized Tests”). While students were made to believe the results of these tests would significantly impact their futures, to Defendant College Board the tests served a wholly different purpose–i.e., to obtain highly valuable personal student information. Defendant College Board obtained the students’ personal information through the use of unfair and deceptive practices such as: (a) misrepresenting that it did not sell the information; (b) falsely claiming that the personal information would“[g]uide your counselors in helping you plan your future”; and (c) preying on students’ hopes and fears by making it appear that providing the information could assist with college acceptance and financial aid while not providing the information would be detrimental to those goals–when in fact, neither scenario was true. As Defendant College Board has admitted, whether a student provided the information did not impact his chance of being accepted into colleges or scholarship programs in any way.

College Board’s solicitation of the student information in question occurs via completion of its “Student Search Service” section, which students are asked to complete prior to taking a College Board test. From the “Factual Allegations” section of the lawsuit:

In connection with the “Preadministration” process for the Standardized Tests, Defendant College Board offered and promoted to students a separate product called Student Search Service.

Student Search Service was a product that allowed Defendant College Board to obtain and sell students’ personal information without the necessary consents. Between September 1, 2016 through the present, Defendant College Board charged between $0.42 and $0.47 per student name sold to a third-party organization.

In connection with Student Search Service, Defendant College Board collected the following information from students who took the AP Exams: (a) name; (b) birthdate; (c) email address; (d) home address; (e)expected high school graduation date; (f) grade point average; (g) gender; (h) ethnicity; and (i) parents’ educational backgrounds.In addition to the information described in the preceding sentence, in connection with Student Search Service, College Board obtained the following information from students who took the PSAT/NMSQT and PSAT 10: (a) intended college major and (b) parents’ military backgrounds.In addition to the information College Board collected from students taking AP Exams, the PSAT/NMSQT and PSAT 10, in connection with Student Search Service, College Board obtained the following information, among other information,from students who took the SAT: (a) citizenship status; (b) religious preference; (c) parental income; (d) high school courses and activities, including participation in religious activities or clubs; and (e) interest in the ROTC.

According to the suit, College Board is “unfair and deceptive” in both collection and intended usage of student data:

At relevant times, Defendant College Board used unfair and deceptive means to obtain the above-described personal information from students, including:

  • Misrepresenting in Defendant College Board’s publications titled“Our Commitment to Student Data Privacy” and “Data Privacy Overview” that it did not sell student data or information;
  • Making it appear as if participation in Student Search Service was voluntary while proactively engaging in conduct Defendant College Board knew would lead to students’ participation, such as:
    • “Strongly recommend[ing]” in the Student Answer Sheet Instructions to the SAT, PSAT/NMSQT and PSAT10 that students answer all of the Student Search Service questions under the false pretense that provision of the information “[g]uide[s] your counselors in helping you plan your future”;
    • Directing AP Exam proctors and teachers in a document titled “AP Preadministration Instructions” to “[e]ncourage your students to answer ‘Yes’” to the question regarding whether students want to participate in Student Search Service;
    • Directing SAT, PSAT/NMSQT and PSAT 10 exam proctors and teachers in written materials provided by Defendant College Board in connection with the administration of the exams to provide instructions regarding Student Search Service that falsely made it appear as if declining to participate in the service could lead to dire consequences, such as missing out on financial aid opportunities; and
    • Preying on students’ hopes and fears by making it appear that providing the information could assist with college acceptance and financial aid while not providing the information would be detrimental to those goals–when in fact, neither scenario was true; and
  • Concealing from students that Defendant College Board’s true purpose in obtaining the personal information was to sell it to third party organizations in order to increase its already substantial revenues.

College Board’s “Data Privacy Principles” states that College Board “does not sell student information”– immediately followed by a “however” indicating that, well, yes, it does, but let’s use some softer language and call it “reinvested licensing” instead of “garnering profits off of students’ personal information:

College Board does not sell student information; however, qualified colleges, universities, nonprofit scholarship services, and nonprofit educational organizations do pay a license fee to use this information to recruit students and provide opportunities in connection with educational or scholarship programs. These license fees are reinvested in our nonprofit mission.

“These license fees are reinvested in our nonprofit mission.”

What a disarming finish. Nonprofit. We’re not in this for the money.

Not hardly, but we’ll come back to that.

Students are not informed at the time of test preadministration that College Board does sell this data, even as College Board does indeed instruct its AP test proctors to “encourage” students to complete the section.  From College Board’s 2015-16_AP Preadministration_Instructions regarding its *trademarked* Student Search Service (page 5):

Student Search Service®

Through Student Search Service®, AP students can receive information on admission, financial aid, and postsecondary education opportunities from colleges, universities, scholarship programs, and educational opportunity programs. The materials students receive help them start thinking about and exploring higher education opportunities.

When students complete the answer sheet, they are asked if they would like certain information they supply on their answer sheets sent to colleges, universities, and scholarship programs that request it from the College Board.

Encourage your students to answer ‘‘Yes’’ in Item O on their answer sheet to ensure that they can receive information from these entities. If a student doesn’t answer this question and previously chose to participate in this service, the College Board will continue providing his or her information.

Students’ participation is completely voluntary, and they pay no fees for participating in Student Search.

Students may request that their name, email address, or both be removed from the service at any time by calling 866-825-8051 or emailing searchcustomerservice@collegeboard.org

As to College Board’s SAT’s school-day preadministration-instructions: Below is the verbatim script SAT proctors read to students regarding the solicitation of students’ personal information (page 9). In these instructions, College Board misleads students regarding “other uses” of students’ personal information, for purposes “such as research” (note no mention of selling the information to third parties). Also notice the condition for NOT completing the info: Parents’ anticipating the request and directly telling students not to enter personal information in any voluntary section. Finally, note that the “warning” comes after the students have already been enticed by “certain advantages” of completing the personal information section, including dangling the term, “scholarship offers”:

When everyone is ready, say:

Now we’ll complete the rest of the boxes on this page and on the back page of your answer sheet, which asks for more information about you, your educational background, experiences, and outside school activities and interests.

There are certain advantages for you to complete this information. With your permission, it’s provided to colleges, universities, and scholarship providers, and used to identify students who may be interested in the opportunities they offer. However, it’s important that you know the College Board will also be able to use this information and provide it to others for additional uses, such as research.

You can complete this section or leave it blank—it’s up to you. If your parent or guardian has told you that you shouldn’t complete any optional or voluntary information, please just sit quietly as we go through this activity. Do NOT complete any question that asks for information your parent or guardian has told you not to provide.

Another issue addressed in the lawsuit concerns College Board’s violating the Illinois School Records Act by sharing students’ personal information. Also from the “Factual Allegations” section of the complaint:

Illinois public policy as set forth in the Illinois School Student Records Act, 105
ILCS § 10/1, et seq. (“ISSRA”), seeks to protect the privacy and confidentiality of Illinois school student records by prohibiting their release, transfer, disclosure or dissemination, except in extremely limited circumstances that do not include the release, transfer, disclosure and dissemination of student school records engaged in by Defendant College Board.

Pursuant to ISSRA, “school student record” means “any writing or other recorded
information concerning a student by which a student may be individually identified, maintained by a school or at its direction . . . regardless of how or where the information is stored.”

Pursuant to ISSRA, the information Defendant College Board collected about
students in connection with Student Search Service constitutes school student records.

Pursuant to ISSRA, Defendant College Board is a “school” because it is a
“person, agency or institution which maintains school student records from more than one school.”

Pursuant to Defendant College Board’s Illinois fiscal year 2017 contract with the
Illinois State Board of Education, it agreed to comply with the relevant requirements of ISSRA regarding the confidentiality of school student records. On information and belief, the contracts between College Board and the Illinois State Board of Education for subsequent years required the same compliance.

In violation of ISSRA, Defendant College Board released, transferred, disclosed
and disseminated school student records.

Other issues in the lawsuit concern College Board’s soliciting personal information from minors, which violates The Children’s Privacy Protection and Parental Empowerment Act, and then using such information without first obtaining written consent from the students’ parents, which violates the Right of Publicity Act. From the lawsuit:

Illinois public policy, as set forth in the Children’s Privacy Protection and
Parental Empowerment Act, 325 ILCS § 17/1, et seq. (the “Children’s Privacy Protection Act”), seeks to empower parents to protect their children’s personal information by preventing the sale or purchase of the personal information of a child under sixteen without parental consent.

The Children’s Privacy Protection Act, defines a “child” as a person under the age
of sixteen. It further defines “personal information” as a person’s name, address, telephone number or “any other information that can be used to locate or contact a specific individual.”

Pursuant to the Children’s Privacy Protection Act, the “sale or purchase of personal information concerning an individual known to be a child without parental consent is prohibited.”

By selling the personal information of children without parental consent, Defendant College Board violated the Children’s Privacy Protection Act.

***

Illinois law also empowers individuals to control other’s use of their identities for
commercial purposes without first receiving written consent.

The Illinois Right of Publicity Act, 765 ILCS § 1075/1, et seq., recognizes that every individual has a right of publicity – namely, “to control and to choose whether and how to use an individual’s identity for commercial purposes.”

Section 5 of the Right of Publicity Act defines “commercial purpose” as the “the
public use or holding out of an individual’s identity (i) on or in connection with the offering for sale or sale of a product . . . or services; (ii) for the purposes of advertising or promoting products . . . or services . . . .”

Section 5 of the Right of Publicity Act defines “identity” as “any attribute of an individual that serves to identify that individual to an ordinary, reasonable viewer or listener, including but not limited to (i) name . . . .”

Pursuant to § 30 of the Right of Publicity Act, “a person may not use an individual’s identity for commercial purposes during the individual’s lifetime without having
obtained previous written consent from the appropriate person or persons . . . or their authorized representatives.”

In violation of the Right of Publicity Act, Defendant College Board used the identities of students who participated in Student Search Service – including Plaintiffs and Class Members – for commercial purposes without having obtained previous written consent from the appropriate person or persons or their authorized representatives. The information provided by College Board that allowed others to be able to identify Plaintiffs and Class Members, included name, home address, email address and date of birth.

The suit continues with damages to individuals (e.g., invasion of privacy; diminished value of personal information; deprival of control of personal information for commercial purposes) as well as allegations for class action.

The lawsuit estimates that 5 million individuals nationwide could be eligible as class members in a class action, where “class member” is one “who took the SAT, PSAT/NMSQT, the PSAT10, the PSAT 8/9 or an AP Exam and participated in Defendant College Board’s Student Search Service.”

If College Board sold the personal information of 5 million test takers for $.45 per test taker, that’s a whopping $2,250,000– and that is if College Board sells each test taker’s information only once (which is hardly likely).

College Board may be a nonprofit, but it is certainly a money maker.

According to the College Board’s most recent tax filing (2017), the College Board’s total revenue was one billion, 68 million dollars ($1, 067,701,847 to be exact), $2.4M of which was from “government grants.”

Executive compensation totaled $6.8M.

President and CEO David Coleman was paid $1.6M in total compensation.

Chief Operating Officer (COO) Jeremy Singer was paid $1M in total compensation.

Ten additional individuals listed as officers, key employees, or former employees were paid between $500,000 and $600,000 in total compensation.

Six additional individuals listed as officers, highest compensated employees, or former employees were paid between $300,000 and $400,000 in total compensation.

College Board is a profoundly profitable.

Part of its profitability is on the backs of minors being enticed to offer personal information that College Board turns around and sells to third parties.

I think College Board will end up paying for its action in this proposed-class-action suit, as it should.

rotten apple

_______________________________________________________________________

Interested in scheduling Mercedes Schneider for a speaking engagement? Click here.

.

Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

4 Comments
  1. Daedalus permalink

    College Board Limbo (How low can they go?)

  2. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    Another great expose of the SAT scams.

    Unfortunately data dashboard information from USDE is also in line for raiding of student personal infomration PII, especially if the “bipartisan” S.800 is passed, with Elizabeth Warren a co-sponsor.

    This bill is marketed as if it addresses the student loan crisis. It does not, but it will produce even more egregious rankings of “best buy” college programs than those already in play. Although the SAT is not in play here, S.800 kills the current protection of student PII in the Higher Education Act and it allows periods of PII data-sharing with the IRS, Department of Defense, HHS and so on. Postsecondary programs will be evaluated by economic outcomes for their students at several intervals after program completion. The bill has many features in a long-standing wish-list from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s