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Avoiding FERPA Problems when Faculty Disclose Student Grades
BY EVELYN R. BABEY, PH.D.
Principal Consultant
RESCUU- Registrar & Enrollment Services
Consulting for Colleges & Universities
Published in Student Affairs Law & Policy Quarterly
Volume 2 No. 1, October 2004

INTRODUCTION

A student calls your office to complain that a faculty member posted mid-term grades by Student ID numbers on his office door. Another student complains that her professor told a faculty colleague the grade she earned in his course. Do these students have valid concerns as it relates to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)?

In the first case, FERPA privacy rights likely were violated. In the second case, it is possible that the student’s privacy rights were violated. Did the second faculty member have a legitimate educational interest in knowing the student’s grade? If there was a legitimate educational interest, then no violation occurred. These are just some of the common FERPA issues that arise when faculty members disclose student grades. This article will explore these types of FERPA challenges and offer some recommendations to address potential problems.

POSTING GRADES

Since the early days of FERPA, one of the main challenges colleges have contended with is faculty members publicly posting grades by student name, social security number or any part of the social security number or other student ID. Posting grades in this manner is not acceptable under FERPA. However, there are some ways to post grades. For example, faculty may post student grades by a unique identifier known only to the faculty member and the individual student.   

A student at Hunter College filed a complaint with the Family Policy Compliance Office (FPCO) in 2002 alleging that a professor posted his grade on a web page with the last four digits of his social security number.

LeRoy Rooker, Director of the FPCO, addressed this complaint in an October, 2002 letter to the Interim President of Hunter College:   

In this case [the student’s] grades were publicly disclosed with the last four digits of his social security number absent his consent when they were posted on a web page. Because a social security number, or portions thereof, are by definition‘personally identifiable information’ under FERPA, this Office finds that the College violated [the student’s] rights as alleged. . . .

We note that FERPA does not prevent an educational agency or institution from posting grades the grades of students without written consent when it is not done in a personally identifiable manner. Thus, while FERPA precludes a school from posting grades by social security numbers, student ID numbers, or by names because these types of information are personally identifiable or easily traceable to students, nothing in FERPA would preclude a school from assigning individual numbers to students for the purpose of posting grades as long as those numbers are known only to the student and the school officials who assigned them.

Thus, under the proper circumstances, faculty members can publicly post student grades. In doing so, an additional “best practice” step should be considered. Any roster of students is generally run in alphabetical order. A unique identifier would not hide the identity of the students whose names appear at the beginning or end of the list. The list should be randomized by student name to avoid names beginning with “A” at the beginning of the list and names ending in “Z” at the end of the list. Also, if all the grades in the course are the same, there is no way to protect the confidentiality of a student’s grade even with a unique identifier and a randomized list— these grades should not be publicly posted.

MAILING GRADES

Faculty also can notify students of their grades by mailing them in individually addressed sealed envelopes. To be certain that the student’s address is correct, the faculty member might ask each student to give her a selfaddressed envelope. A faculty member also could e-mail students their grades but must be careful to address the emails to each individual student with only that student’s grade. A faculty member would probably violate FERPA if she sends one student’s grade to another student’s email address.

It is recommended that faculty do not notify students of their grades via post cards because others with no right of access to the grade information could potentially see them and this would most likely result in a FERPA violation.

DISTRIBUTING GRADED PAPERS OR EXAMS

Faculty members often place graded papers or exams in a public place, i.e., box outside an office, for students to pick up. Leaving graded work in a public place could lead to a FERPA violation because they could be accessed by individuals who have no right of access to this information. There are several ways faculty members could return papers to students without potential FERPA violations. They can return them individually to students during class or in their office. They can make arrangements for an office administrative assistant to give them to students.

Faculty and their assistants will want to be sure that they are returning papers to the appropriate students. For this reason, they may want to check a picture ID before giving a student his paper. Some schools suggest that putting graded papers or exams in sealed envelopes with the student names or other identifiers written on the envelopes, and leaving them in a place for students to pick up, may be a viable option. The problem with this alternative is someone else may open the student’s envelope or walk off with the envelope.

PARENTS, COLLEAGUES, AND STUDENT GRADES

Parents

Parents do call faculty to inquire about the academic progress of their children in classes. It probably is not wise for a faculty member to get into a discussion about a student’s grades with someone who claims to be a student’s parent. They generally should refer the “parent” to the registrar’s office which would be in a better position to determine if disclosure is even permissible.

Colleagues

Sometimes a faculty colleague will ask a faculty member what grade a particular student received in his class. A faculty member should not discuss student grades without knowing precisely whether the disclosure is permissible. FERPA does permit disclosure of personally identifiable, non-directory information from education records, such as student grades, without the student’s written consent in several instances. One instance is to school officials, including teachers, whom the college has determined have a legitimate educational interest in the information. 34 CFR § 99.31(a)(1). Legitimate educational interest generally means that the school official needs the information to fulfill her institutional role and her responsibilities. If a student is an advisee of a faculty member, this faculty member likely meets the legitimate educational interest requirement in knowing the student’s academic history.

Some colleges that have implemented student information systems have defined all faculty members as school officials and grant them access to all students’ online transcripts, advising reports and/or degree audits. These institutions may be creating a situation in which FERPA violations can occur because not every faculty member would have a legitimate educational interest in every student’s academic record. Even when a faculty member has a particular student in her class, she probably does not have a legitimate educational interest in the student’s prior grades—it will depend on the facts.

LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION

Students often ask faculty members to write letters of recommendation based on their work in the faculty members’ classes. Faculty members usually are happy to oblige but should get signed, written requests from the students. The request should include to whom the letter is to be sent, and the reason for sending the information and requesting that the course and grade be included. 34 CFR§ 99.30. FERPA does permit a faculty member to disclose“personal knowledge” about a student without specific permission, but grades are considered education records and thus would require the student’s signed written consent before they can be released.

ON-LINE ACCESS, MISCELLANEOUS PAPERS, ETC.

Today’s student information systems give faculty access to real time student advisee transcript data, degree audits, etc., right on their computer screens. Faculty, however, should be careful how they position their monitors. If they are position in such a way that individuals can see a student’s grades as they walk by, a FERPA violation may occur. Faculty also should not leave their computers without logging off for the same reasons.

Faculty members also should be careful not to leave papers or forms with students’ personally identifiable information, such as grades, in places where others can view them or have access to them. Leaving such information “around” may lead to a FERPA violation because they might be accessed by individuals that have no right to access the information.

CONCLUSION

Faculty members have a great deal of access to student personally identifiable information, including grades. It is very important for faculty members to be aware of the FERPApolicies that govern the disclosure of student grades and to understand what actions on their part may violate these policies. The next issue of Student Affairs Law and Policy Quarterly will discuss ways in which a college can help faculty gain a better understanding of FERPAand keep faculty informed of changes in FERPA policies and procedures.

 

           




 





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