FERPA

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act deals with student records. I guess that all of the students whom I teach at the college level are 18 or older but it is possible a few 17-year olds sneak in once-in-awhile. The age distinction means the student gains the rights previously granted to their parents. These rights are described in the language of eligibility: seeing the records and requesting copies of the records. Schools are in general not allowed to share these records with others without consent, although there is quite a list of exceptions.
According to a September 25 memo from the UMass Registrar: “Students have the right to have some control over the disclosure of information from the records. Educational institutions have the responsibility to prevent improper disclosure of personally identifiable information from the records.”


According to a September 25 memo from the UMass Registrar: “Students have the right to have some control over the disclosure of information from the records. Educational institutions have the responsibility to prevent improper disclosure of personally identifiable information from the records.”
This memo is exclusively concerned with the posting of grades. It does not identify other potential violations, although it does point toward The Family Policy Compliance Office within the Department of Education as a resource/reference and a 1998 publication by The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (“Guidelines for Postsecondary Institutions for Implementation of FERPA as Amended”) as a definitive source of information.
Interestingly, writing the grade on a postcard to be sent through the US Mail is an acceptable form of grade notification. The completion of self-addressed and stamped postcard with the course name/number is taken to be “uncoerced written permission” and (presumably) protects the University and faculty member from accusations of violating privacy.
A particular caution is issued regarding the use of social security numbers or portions thereof because “There may be more risk to the privacy of the individual by the posting of the SSN or ID number (since for many of our students, these numbers are the same) than by the posting of the grade itself!”
Of course, “the University’s attorneys…would prefer instructors never, under any circumstance, posted grades.”
Well, I’m down with this. No sweat! I wouldn’t want to do this in a public internet space anyway. That would quickly kill any sense of camaraderie and interrelational ethic established through the process of making learning public. (As if learning, in and of itself, can actually be graded at all.) Grades might actually accomplish more as a tool for social control measuring compliance with established authority (the teacher) than as an indicator of actual achievement or basic prowess. I speculate, mind you, on the macrosocial level. My students are, of course, all exceedingly excellent. (No, this doesn’t mean you’re all going to earn A’s. Wish on!)
Meanwhile, the questions concerning “student privacy” in a public webspace (such as a wiki or a weblog or any kind of public site) seem to revolve around whether the information available there constitutes “improper disclosure” and must invoke questions concerning “personally identifiable information”. Maybe I’m wrong, but a public webspace is not “the record,” even if it is “a record” of a student’s learning process, final productions, as well as (at least potentially) some negotiations and feedback concerning the learning process and generation of a final product.
I’m wondering about the extent to which students &emdash; as eligible parties to their own education, including the records pertaining to that education &emdash; can be trusted to have “some control over … disclosure…” particularly if we’re not talking about their actual records but rather their participation in the learning process?
Clearly I extrapolate. I have not seen the actual wording of the whole law, but it does appear to me that the law is written on behalf of students and their families, and &emdash; as such &emdash; students and their families ought to have some say in the ways Universities establish protective policies. Law is always double-edged, by establishing rights it guarantees (at least the potential of) redress. It is understandable that institutions of higher learning would seek to position themselves within the most conservative boundaries possible in order to minimize the legal risks. The question is when do these boundaries impinge upon the freedom of students to learn?

2 thoughts on “FERPA”

  1. There are times when privacy is seriously violated. Such as when all the blue books are spilled onto a table with names and grades on the front with the direction to find yours among the scattered books.
    Everyone can see the grades of everyone else.

  2. Yes, I noticed that too and wondered about it. That’s overt: no question it is covered by FERPA. The situation I’m in is more vague. “Murky”, an administrator told me. The question concerns what is considered “an educational record”. The University’s lawyer would like to impose a standard that any and all feedback of any type that might in any way indicate some inference or implication of student progress could be construed as an educational record.
    I believe there is a distinction between feedback (geared toward clarification or offered as an suggestion) and assessment (evaluation of performance based upon grading criteria). I do understand that a comment, taken out of context, can appear to be assessment, but just because it can appear so doesn’t mean it is, and certainly doesn’t mean it was. The privacy rule is designed to make sure no one else knows the actual evaluation (grade) of your work (unless, of course, you want others to know, which is a crucial element of the law that the University seems intent to sidestep as much as possible?)

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