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Raising Red Flags in Data Collection
Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC
Monday January 01, 2007
by: Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC

Section: Inside Insight

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Today’s uncertain academic climate makes it necessary for professional school counselors to demonstrate the impact school counseling curriculum has on students. However, in the fervor to prove the validity of counseling programs, we must not overlook the ethical mine fields surrounding the collection of sensitive information about our students.

Many school districts across the country have established protocol for gathering data about students’ personal information. However, there is still an ethical chasm between districts that are sensitive to students’ privacy and schools that overlook the importance of young people’s personal data.

Although schools generally have the best of intentions when collecting student information, we must consider the ethical ramifications of how this data might be used or even misused. An example of abusing data would be using test scores that were disaggregated by race, and then misuse the data to claim some ethnic groups aren’t as intelligent as other groups of students. Another case of possible data misuse would include sensitive questions such as asking female students if they had begun menstruating. Although the question may be viable to the research, if parents and guardians haven’t given permission or received any explanation about how that information would be used or interpreted it would be inappropriate to ask in data collection.

The worthy cause of accountability and the demand for data collection must not supersede the ethical issues surrounding data collection, usage and interpretation. Although school counselors are being encouraged and even mandated to assess the impact of program effectiveness through data collection, these efforts must not be at the expense of sound ethical research practice. As ethical practitioners, school counselors must become aware of what constitutes ethical research and what raises the proverbial red flags.

Prince George’s County Public Schools Office of Research and Evaluation has identified several research issues that raised red flags in their school district. These items are a good guideline for those collecting data within any school.

Undue burden: Does your research place an unnecessary burden on participants, schools, programs, students/teachers or the system?

Sensitive topics: Red flags are also raised when evaluating sensitive topics. Before beginning data collection, you’ll need to address how will you handle those issues in a sensitive and caring manner.

Duplication of effort: Consider whether the topics being studied overlap with other assessments on the same topic. This might cause duplication of efforts or confound the results.

Physical contact: Another red flag for some schools would be if the research requires touching or physical measurements of some type. Certainly you’ll need to define appropriate cautions if physical contact is part of the data collection.

Too much time: It is also important to take into consideration how much time the data collection process requires and if it requires out0-of-school with the students.

These indicators can be used as guidelines for evaluating the data collection proposals.

The Action Plan
You should consider four major areas when creating a data collection action plan: informed consent, confidentiality for the individuals and for the data collected, respect for the individuals being assessed, responsible data management and reporting.

Informed consent: When collecting data and assessing a school counseling program’s impact, be sure you provide informed consent. You must inform parents and participants about how you’ll handle the data and what efforts you’ll use to maintain confidentiality. Most schools will not recognize passive consent but require parents and participants to actually give consent rather than just assuming they are consenting.

Informed consent must also include the opportunity for the participants to refuse involvement without coercion or threat of penalty. Students shouldn’t be forced to participate in a study, nor should they be unknowing participants. The informed consent should also include what risks might exist for the participants. The Family Rights and Education Act (1974) expects that minimum informed consent include a description of the data being collected, names and positions of those collecting it and to whom the data will be released. A signature of the parent or guardian must be included as confirmation of the informed consent. Informed consent must also include how you’ll maintain the privacy and confidentiality of the collected information.

Confidentiality: In the data collection process, it is important to verify to the participants and parents or guardians how you’ll keep the collected information confidential, what procedures are in place to obtain a release the information to view the data and how individual participants’ confidentiality will be protected over a long period of time. Protecting participants’ anonymity is a paramount consideration in any data collection project.

Respect: As professional school counselors, we all know about the importance of respect for the individual. In data collection, respect is likewise an important factor. Respect includes being aware of sensitive issues and the impact the research might have on the individual. Evidence of respect for those involved would include explaining the process and reason for the data collection in a way the participants understand. Explaining the participants’ role in the data collection, as well as making them aware of the researcher’s role is helpful in maintaining respect. Make the participants aware of any potential emotional or physical risk from participating in the research.

Respect to participants also involves being sensitive to and aware of culture and gender bias in the assessment instrument as well as in reporting the results. Assessing the cultural and developmental appropriateness of the instrument should be given ethical consideration when selecting the instruments, while being culturally responsive to the impact that the reporting ethnicity and gender has on participants is not only respectful but also responsible data reporting.

Responsible management: Responsible management includes the methods used to obtain and report the data results. It must also encompass accurate reporting and data interpretation and the safeguarding and confidentiality of the records. Responsibility must also include minimizing the possibility of misleading results or misinterpretation of the results and protecting participants from any adverse reactions to the results. Other aspects of responsible management would include doing no harm to participants or community, making sure the data collection is culturally relevant and contributes to the knowledge base. Responsible data management is a reflection on the respect given to the participants and a necessary component in the data collection, analysis and interpretation process. This consideration is not a hurdle that impedes the research but a element that reflects ethics.

Granted, many professional school counselors already view data collection and analysis as a major hurdle, and adding in all the potential red flags could scare off a number of would-be researchers. However, a professional school counselor can reframe the issue by considering ethical awareness as a way to pave the road for program effectiveness and an opportunity to model intentional and responsible research.

In the long run, the necessity and value of that type of professional accountability is without question. The focus question for this profession is, “How are students different because of what school counselors do?” Although this may be a paradigm shift for many, it is the most poignant question ever asked of this profession. But in the rush to prove the effectiveness of school counseling interventions and strategies, be sure to err on the side of respect for the ethical standards that empower the integrity of the school counseling profession. School counseling was created to help, support and empower young people. No one can afford to loose sight of the very lesson that school counselors so often teach to students – integrity.

Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC, is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs and chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. She can be reached atrwilliams@uccs.edu.