PSU violates public school students’ privacy

A Portland State Graduate School of Education project brought unexpected controversy after graduate student Ezra Whitman complained that the project was illegal and likely violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The assignment was part of a larger research project started in 2016.

Willamette Week reported in March 2018 that the project required teaching candidates to collect information from K-12 public schools about race, gender, disability status and whether they spoke English as a second language. WW also reported this information was taken directly from school computers without permission.

FERPA protects the privacy of public school student records. In many cases, schools need parent or student permission to release information and, in all cases, outside researchers must ask the permission of the school before accessing student information. Allegedly, PSU’s GSE did not ask permission to access the files used during the project in question.

The research project was initially intended to “create better results for students of color, by changing teaching methods to reduce racial disparities in test scores.”

PSU’s General Counsel’s office has since conducted an internal review of the project.

“No personally identifiable information was disclosed to the researchers or others in violation of FERPA,” stated Kenny Ma, director of media and public relations for PSU. “However, the researchers used the de-identified FERPA data for a purpose that was not authorized by the K-12 schools. This unauthorized use was likely prohibited by FERPA.”

“While the K-12 schools could likely have given the PSU researchers permission to use the de-identified data for the purpose of conducting the research without violating FERPA, they were not asked and did not provide such permission,” Ma continued.

Stating the PSU General Counsel’s office also found that no identifiable information was shared with any third party, Ma stated PSU concluded there was “no impact on the privacy of individual students or their families.”

The General Counsel’s office also made several recommendations—including better training about FERPA requirements in the GSE for students and staff—and also recommended the same training for the PSU Institutional Review Board.

PSU’s International Review Board regulates all research involving human subjects and is meant to provide “independent determination on the methods, risks, benefits and rights involved in human subjects research,” according to their website.

“The GSE research assignment at issue has already been discontinued,” Ma stated. “It’s recommended that there be no further research using data obtained from student teachers in K-12 schools unless permission is obtained from the relevant school districts and in a manner consistent with FERPA.”

“It’s also recommended that GSE share and discuss this report [made by the General Counsel’s Office] with potentially impacted K-12 school districts,”  Ma stated. “GSE plans to fully implement all of the report’s recommendations. In doing so, the school plans to continue having conversations about being fair, honest and transparent about research with faculty, students and staff.”