Search form

Peer Grading vs. Privacy: The Supreme Court Rules
Share StarrPoints

In the case Owasso Independent School Dist. No. I-001 v. Falvo, an Oklahoma mother claimed that teacher grade books were "educational records" and that peer grading embarrassed her children and violated their rights under the Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA). The Supreme Court disagreed, saying, "We do not think FERPA prohibits these educational techniques." Well, the Supreme Court has its opinion about "these educational techniques" -- and Linda Starr has hers. Read them both in this week's StarrPoints.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that allowing students to grade one another's schoolwork does not violate the Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA). The justices made the ruling in the case of Owasso Independent School Dist. No. I-001 v. Falvo, in which an Oklahoma mother claimed that peer grading embarrassed her children and violated their FERPA-given right to privacy.

FERPA states that no federal funds shall be made available to any educational agency or institution that has a policy or practice of permitting the release of students' educational records (or personally identifiable information contained therein) to any individual, agency, or organization, without the written consent of the students' parents. Educational records are defined as "those records, files, documents, and other materials that contain information directly related to a student, and [that] are maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a person acting for such agency or institution."

Join Discussion
Look What She

In today's StarrPoints, columnist Linda Starr takes on the U.S. Supreme Court over the issue of peer grading. What do you think? Is peer grading a valuable educational strategy or an ill-considered classroom practice? Share your reflections on a StarrPoints message board. Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four "nearly grown" children, has been an education writer for almost a decade. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.

Kristja Falvo, the Oklahoma mother who initiated the case, claimed that teacher grade books were educational records and that peer grading of class work or homework assignments violated the privacy of those records. Falvo was responding to a practice in which students in her children's school district exchange papers for grading and then read the grades aloud so the teacher can record them in a grade book. According to Falvo, one of her children -- who suffers from a mild learning disability -- was ridiculed and called a "dummy" by classmates when his grades were known and announced publicly. She objected both to the peer grading and to the practice of reading the grades aloud.

In rendering their decision, the nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices unanimously agreed that peer grading does not violate a student's right to privacy. In making that ruling, the court also offered its opinion about the practice of peer grading. Well, the court has its opinion -- and I have mine. Let's compare.

Note: Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the Supreme Court opinion, which reversed a ruling of the Court of Appeals of the 10th Circuit. Some of the quotes below, all of which were taken directly from Justice Kennedy's written opinion, reflect the Supreme Court's response to the lower court ruling, not to the original complaint.

Supreme Court Point:
"Even assuming the teacher's grade book is an educational record -- a point the parties contest and one we do not decide here -- the score on a student-graded assignment is not contained therein until the teacher records it."

Technically, this is correct and certainly we've all heard this type of argument before. Usually it goes something like this: "But you said, 'Don't eat a single cookie before dinner.' I didn't eat a single cookie. I ate a whole bunch of cookies!" A more persuasive argument, in my opinion, is that in this case, the teacher apparently never looked at the students' work or checked the scores for accuracy before entering them into the grade book. Assignments that are graded either by students themselves or by their classmates -- and whose scores are, therefore, potentially unreliable -- should never constitute any part of a student's final grade or of his or her educational record.

Court Point:
"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 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."

Correcting assignments as a group can be a legitimate educational strategy. Students benefit much more from correcting their own work, however, than they do from correcting a classmate's work. When correcting their own assignments, students can see their mistakes, perhaps recall the thought processes that led to those mistakes, and ask the teacher to help clarify those thought processes. I can easily imagine a student saying, for example, "You said the answer to number 5 is Africa, but I wrote Nigeria. Nigeria is in Africa. Why is that answer wrong?" I can less easily imagine a student saying, "Paul, whose paper I'm correcting, wrote."

Court Point:
"[Correcting a classmate's work] helps show students how to assist and respect fellow pupils."

Peer grading does not teach students how to assist and respect one another; students treat one another with respect because their parents and teachers insist that they do. Apparently that didn't happen in this case -- the student in question here was ridiculed for his grade and called a "dummy" by his fellow pupils. When it comes to real kids (When was the last time a Supreme Court Justice was actually in a public school classroom?), peer grading teaches them that some assignments don't matter; that they don't have to work too hard on those assignments because the teacher will never see them anyway; and that they can ease their embarrassment about their own errors by teasing those whose scores are a little lower -- or significantly higher -- than their own.

Court Point:
"Construction of the term education record to cover student homework or classroom work would force all instructors to take time, which otherwise could be spent teaching and in preparation, to correct an assortment of daily student assignments."

Was I on bus duty when the announcement was made that evaluating student work was no longer part of a teacher's job?

Court Point:
"[Construction of the term education record to cover student homework or classroom work] would make it much more difficult for teachers to give students immediate guidance."

Student self-grading would make it much easier for teachers to give students immediate guidance.

Court Point:
"The logical consequences of respondent's view are all but unbounded. At argument, counsel for respondent seemed to agree that if a teacher in any of the thousands of covered classrooms in the Nation puts a happy face, a gold star, or a disapproving remark on a classroom assignment, federal law does not allow other students to see it. We doubt Congress meant to intervene in this drastic fashion with traditional state functions."

I too doubt that Congress intended FERPA to be used to restrict happy faces, honor rolls, or student work displayed on classroom bulletin boards. The Supreme Court, however, could have protected a teacher's ability to recognize student achievement without defending a practice that too frequently causes public embarrassment. As for "disapproving remarks," they should never be delivered by a teacher to a student in a public forum.

Court Point:
"Under the Court of Appeals' interpretation of FERPA, the federal power would exercise minute control over specific teaching methods and instructional dynamics in classrooms throughout the country. The Congress is not likely to have mandated this result, and we do not interpret the statute to require it."

I certainly hope not!

StarrPoints holds, therefore, that the Supreme Court's final ruling was reasonable although the Court's defense of the practices that precipitated the case was ill advised. The opinion, as written, presents peer grading as a reasonable, even necessary, instructional tool. It is not.

Self-grading is an educationally valid practice when used for instructive, but not evaluative, purposes. Peer grading has little instructional or evaluative validity -- certainly not enough to justify the embarrassment it causes some students. The practice of publicly announcing all students' grades, whether assignments have been self-graded, peer graded, or teacher graded, is despicable -- potentially humiliating and divisive -- and should be banned in all our Nation's schools.

The most troubling aspect of the case, however, appears in Justice Kennedy's discussion of its background. According to Kennedy, "Respondent claimed the peer grading embarrassed her children. She asked the school district to adopt a uniform policy banning peer grading and requiring teachers either to grade assignments themselves or at least to forbid students from grading papers other than their own. The school district declined to do so." And the district declined because?

Perhaps a peer-graded math lesson would help the Owasso school district figure out how many additional teachers they could have hired with the money they wasted taking this totally unnecessary case all the way to the Supreme Court.