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Best of aea365 week: Ted Dwyer on Responding to FERPA for Evaluators

My name is Ted Dwyer and I’m the Manager of Evaluations in Hillsborough County Public Schools. I have worked in multiple school districts and have served as the reviewer of external research projects in several districts. Today, I would like to share some of what I have learned and observed about FERPA and some thoughts from the perspective of an evaluator.

To protect the rights of parents and students in educational settings, the federal government has put in place the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). FERPA’s main intent is to provide a clear delineation of the parent’s rights to have access to their student’s educational records. While codifying parental rights, FERPA also sets out some very specific guidance and general directions to educational institutions.

Hot Tip: Two reasons that evaluators should be concerned about FERPA are:

  1. If FERPA is violated, the district/university can lose its federal funding and they essentially cannot work with you for 5 years.
  2. FERPA requires parental consent (or adult consent for non-minor students) in order for an educational institution to provide any individual information on a student.

On its face this law can create major headaches for evaluators. However, there are several ways to easily work within FERPA.

1.  The easiest way to ensure compliance with FERPA is to get parental consent and make sure that it specifies:

a. What records can be disclosed (discipline data, achievement data, grades, etc.

b. How the records will be used (evaluation, etc.)

c. Who will receive the information

d. How long the information will be kept (usually until project completion)

Bonus Tip: Make sure that the student is identified in the way the institution keeps its records (student identifier – often a number)

2.  There is a clause in FERPA for “research” but you have to convince the institution that you are conducting the study “…for, or on behalf of…” the institution and that you are “…developing, validating, or administering predictive tests, administering student aid programs, and improving instruction…”. For many this seems like a “no brainer” for the “place” to put an evaluation; however, it is up to the institution to determine if your project meets the criteria – which can be an arduous process rife with institutional politics. Further, some institutions interpret this in relation to who funds the evaluation.

FERPA affects any educational organization that receives federal funds. As responsibility for ensuring that FERPA is followed falls upon the institution, your experience will depend on which institution you are going into, the institution’s policies, and how they interpret the state and federal law (often based on the legal advice of school attorneys). Find out what the policies of the institution are and follow them.

2014 Update: PPRA (Pupil Protections Rights Act) requires that schools and contractors obtain written parental consent before minor students are required to participate in any survey, analysis, or evaluation that reveals information concerning:

  • Political affiliations;
  • Mental and psychological problems potentially embarrassing to the student and his/her family;
  • Sexual behavior and attitudes;
  • Illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating and demeaning behavior;
  • Critical appraisals of other individuals with whom respondents have close family relationships;
  • Legally recognized privileged or analogous relationships, such as those of lawyers, physicians, and ministers; or
  • Income (other than that required by law to determine eligibility for participation in a program or for receiving financial assistance under such program).
It also requires that instructional material and surveys related to these areas be made available to be inspected by parents. Some school districts have incorporated PPRA into their policies and it is important to know and understand how to address both when dealing with school districts.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Best of aea365 week. The contributions all this week are reposts of great aea365 blogs from our earlier years. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org . aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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