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Peer grading. Learning experience or violation of privacy?

December 17, 2001

The question was raised when a reading-disabled boy's classmates laughed at his low quiz score following a peer grading session. Is letting students grade each other's papers a violation of privacy?

Dr. Larry Lowrance, professor of education at Austin Peay and a specialist in disabilities and human rights advocacy, says the determination of what is or is not a "private educational record" is open to broad interpretation. And that lack of clarity can raise troubling questions for educators.

"Privacy law--the Family Rights and Privacy Act--states that we cannot release confidential information on students without their permission," he says. "This becomes a big issue when dealing with daily classroom activities. Is it legal to post spelling papers or art projects on a bulletin board with identifying marks and grades on them? Or can they be posted in the classroom but not in the hall? What about a display in the mall or a public place like the school board office? Does this require parental permission and even student permission?"

As a longtime educator, Lowrance sees the value of giving teachers maximum leeway. "It's obviously simpler and maybe even instructive for teachers to have a loose interpretation of 'protected classroom work.' We can teach in a less encumbered fashion with class products not being subject to subpoena, and we can more easily conduct our classes without the threat of lawsuits."

Lowrance says the practice can even have educational value, offering children a learning experience when they're called to spot misspelled words on others' papers. (Of course, it could also be lazy teaching," Lowrance says, the instructor's way of shunting the work of grading onto students.)

The potential value of the practice doesn't mean that grade displays or announcements are always acceptable, however, he adds. "Surely you wouldn't call out IQ scores or grades from standardized testing."

As the teacher of the disabled child found, making grades public when a child has a disability, such as a reading impediment, can become not only an ethical issue but also a legal one. "The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act states that children with disabilities must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to govern what happens to them, and that the parents are equal partners in these decisions. If there is disagreement over methods or educational placements, the parents have the right to take the school to due process or file lawsuits against the district."

Lowrance's call on the case? He sides with the parent. "The child's IEP governs what happens and if his parent has it written that his scores cannot be revealed, they can't. There are different protections for the special education child if his parent chooses to exercise them."