By Slade, David C.
The World and I , Vol. 17, No. 5
In a case that started as one mother's mission to save her child from embarrassment at school, a unanimous Supreme Court has upheld the widespread teaching practice of peer-graded exams utilized by thousands of teachers and schools around the nation.
Readers will recall from "Privacy of School Grades" (The World & I, January 2002) that teachers in a public school in Oklahoma's Owasso Independent School District regularly had students exchange and score their test papers as the teacher walked through the exam, explaining the right answers.
Supporters of peer grading praise it as being an integral part of the learning process. The Supreme Court noted that "correcting a classmate's work can be as much a part of the assignment as taking the test itself. It is a way to teach material again in a new context, and it helps show students how to assist and respect fellow pupils. By explaining the answers to the class as the students correct the papers, the teacher not only reinforces the lesson but also discovers whether the students have understood the material and are ready to move on."
But to Philip Pletan's mother, peer grading was a violation of federal law.
Philip struggled with a learning disability and was placed in a special-education class. Nonetheless, his school also placed him in a regular fifth-grade class three days a week, on the theory that he would benefit from being "mainstreamed" with other students his age.
In the mainstream class, the students swapped and graded each other's tests while the teacher gave out the correct answers, explaining each question. After the work was graded the students would swap the tests back, and each student would call out his mark to the teacher, who wrote it down.
More often than not, Philip's grades were significantly lower than those of other students, and his classmates often harshly teased him. Seeing how disturbed Philip was by this, his mother tried to get the school to stop the practice, but to no avail. She ended up suing the Owasso school district in federal court, claiming the school's grading practice violated the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
Congress enacted FERPA to provide parents with access to their children's education records and to protect the children's privacy by limiting the release of school records without parental consent. The term education records is defined as "records, files, documents, and other materials" containing information directly related to a student, which "are maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a person acting for such agency or institution."
After losing in federal district court, Philip's mother appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals--which unanimously reversed, shooting down peer grading. This ruling was blazoned across the country, causing thousands of schools to halt the practice of peer grading. Other schools continued the practice but feared being sued themselves.
The Owasso school district appealed to the Supreme Court, which took the case because the nationwide practice of peer grading made the issue important to the countless public schools around the country. …