Supreme Court decision in peer grading case should benefit student journalists

Justices clarify privacy law, determine students are not agents of schools

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously upheld the right of schools to engage in the common practice of having students grade one another's work in the classroom, which the Court ruled does not violate federal privacy statutes.

In a 9-0 ruling, the Court in Owasso Independent School District v. Falvo held that students do not act as agents of the school when they grade their peers' work, a clarification that could be helpful to student journalists in the future.

The Court ruled that classroom peer grading does not constitute an "education record," and does not violate the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) -- at least not until after the grades are recorded in a teacher's grade book. The 1974 act, also known as the Buckley Amendment, penalizes schools for releasing student "education records" without parental consent.

"Just as it does not accord with our usual understanding to say students are 'acting for' an educational institution when they follow their teacher's direction to take a quiz, it is equally awkward to say students are 'acting for' an educational institution when they follow their teacher's direction to score it," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the Court's opinion. Furthermore, the Court said that when quiz grades are read aloud by students in class, they are not "maintained" by the school district, a stipulation required for records that are protected under FERPA.

Kristja J. Falvo sued her son's Oklahoma school district in 1998, claiming the disclosure of his quiz grades when students swapped and graded work during class was a violation of FERPA.

Falvo challenged the policy because she said her learning-disabled son was ridiculed when his poor grades were read aloud in class.

A federal appeals court sided with Falvo in October 2000. The Owasso school district then appealed to the Supreme Court, making it the first time the nation's highest court heard a case involving FERPA.

The Court chose not to address the broader question of whether student assignment grades are protected under FERPA once they are turned in to teachers.

The Court said it assumed -- without deciding -- that FERPA provides private parties with a cause of action.

The Court will take up that question in April when it hears arguments in Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, another FERPA-related case on its docket this term.

Cite: Owasso Independent School District v. Falvo, 534 U.S. 426 (2002)

Copy of the decision

Read our previous coverage.