Peer-Grading Passes the Supreme Court Test

Article excerpt

Owasso ISD v. Falvo

United States Supreme Court

122 S. Ct. 934, 534 U.S. 426

February 19, 2002

It was a common practice in Oklahoma's Owasso Independent School District (ISD) to have students grade one another's daily assignments and announce their grades out loud to the rest of the class. When Kristja Falvo, the mother of three middle school students, learned that this was taking place, she complained about it to the counselors and the superintendent, claiming that this grading process embarrassed her children. Although she was told that the children had the option of confidentially reporting their grades to the teacher, she requested that the school district implement a policy that would prohibit peer-grading. The school district refused to adopt such a policy.

In October 1998, Falvo brought a class-actior lawsuit against the school district and certain administrators, alleging that the grading practice violated 14th Amendment privacy rights and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA, 1974). The district court granted summary judgment in favor of all defendants on both claims.

The Appeal

On appeal, Falvo asserted that the district court erroneously granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, again claiming that the grading practice violated both the 14th Amendment and FERPA. The appellate court affirmed the portion of the trial court's ruling on the 14th Amendment issue, holding that the students and parent had no legitimate expectation of privacy in the students' school work and test grades that would give rise to due-process protection. However, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the portion of the decision relating to FERPA, holding that students' grades were education records within the meaning of FERPA, and that the FERPA violation was actionable under civil rights laws. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

FERPA Provisions

Commonly known as the "Buckley Amendment," FERPA was passed by Congress in 1974 to control what Senator James Buckley referred to as "the growing evidence of the abuse of student records across the nation" (Buckley, 1975). The purpose of FERPA is "two-fold--to assure parents of students ... access to their education records and to protect such individuals' rights to privacy by omitting the transferability of their records without their consent" (Belanger v. Nashua School District, 1974).

The provisions of FERPA that are pertinent to the issue of releasing student records provide that "no funds shall be made available ... to an educational agency or institution which has a policy or practice of permitting the release of educational records ... of students without the written consent of their parents." "Educational agency or institution" is defined in FERPA as "any public or private agency or institution which is the recipient of funds under any applicable [educational] program." In addition, FERPA defines "education records" as "those records, files, documents, and other materials which (i) contain information directly related to a student; and (ii) are maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a person acting for such agency or institution." The definition of "education records" contains an exception for "records of instructional, supervisory, and administrative personnel ... which are in the sole possession of the maker thereof and which are not accessible or revealed to any other person except a substitute."

The Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court recognized that having students peer-grade tests, papers, and other assignments is a common practice in the schools. The court said 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 students. 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 understand the material and are ready to move to new material. …