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I'm a student in Michigan, in the United States. I've just started a class for which a previous class was the prerequisite. The professor of my current class asked that I give him my grade for that previous class. (This was an e-mail sent to me and all my classmates.) I don't like the feel of it. Does he have any right to that information? Obviously he isn't going through the system to get the information, and I feel like it's because this isn't on the level.

On further research, I found the FERPA website. It declares:

Generally, schools must have written permission from the parent or eligible student in order to release any information from a student's education record. However, FERPA allows schools to disclose those records, without consent, to the following parties or under the following conditions (34 CFR § 99.31):

  • School officials with legitimate educational interest;

There are additional parties/conditions, but this is the only one that even comes close to my situation. Another reference I found is Huntingdon College's General FERPA Information, which defines a school official as:

a person employed by the College in an administrative, supervisory, academic or research, or support staff position;

There are other definitions, but again, this is the most applicable to my situation.

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In the US, federal student privacy laws (FERPA) dictate that schools restrict access to student educational records, so that only those with a "legitimate educational interest" can access them. Most universities interpret this such that the student's academic advisor can automatically see their full transcripts in the student record system, but not every professor of every class the student takes.

However, just because access is not automatic, does not mean that it is not allowed. If a professor has a "legitimate educational interest" in a student record, then they may request access to that record. (For example, from the student's academic advisor.) "Legitimate educational interest" will be defined in the school's Student Records Policy and in their annual FERPA disclosure. For example:

A school official has a legitimate educational interest if the official requires the information for the purpose of fulfilling his official duties, including but not limited to:

  • performing a task that is specified in his or her position description or contract agreement;
  • performing a task related to a student’s education;
  • performing a task related to the discipline of a student;
  • providing a service or benefit relating to the student or student’s family, such as health care, counseling, job placement or financial aid;
  • maintaining the safety and security of the campus; or
  • participating in or conducting studies, evaluations, or assessments of educational programs.

Finally, as the student, you are permitted to disclose your student record to anyone you want. Someone with no educational interest in your record - e.g. your parent - could ask you questions about your educational records, and you would be free to disclose that information or not.

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    To this I'd add that a professor, at least generally, has a "legitimate educational interest" in a student's grade in a prerequisite course. The student who just barely scraped by the prerequisite is different from the student who aced the course. The former is likely to need more help. – Bob Brown Jan 15 '18 at 17:55
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    It seems like the discussion of FERPA clouds the key idea here, which is the instructor is asking a student how well they performed in a prereq course. Of course, instructors have a legitimate educational interest in student performance in prerequisite courses (!). – Mad Jack Jan 15 '18 at 18:10
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    @MadJack The OP seemed to think that the professor was doing something wrong because he wasn't "going through the system". I was trying to explain why the system is set up the way it is. – ff524 Jan 15 '18 at 18:16
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    @skia.heliou That would make those articles incorrect. Obviously a piece of law that states [omissis] under the following conditions (34 CFR § 99.31): School officials with unlawful educational interest; is not a valid piece of law. Hence the term legitimate as synonym for lawful is just noise and would be safely removed from the article leaving a more neutral educational interest. – Bakuriu Jan 15 '18 at 20:10
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    @Aaron If an educator accesses a student record for reasons related to educating the student, it's not a FERPA violation. "I want to know who needs more help" is a legally valid reason. So is "I want to assess the overall preparation level of the class, to decide how much time in class to allocate to review." So is "I want to know if we should restrict Advanced Basket Weaving to students who earned at least a B in Elementary Basket Weaving next year." There could be other ways to answer those questions, but accessing a student record to answer them would certainly not be a FERPA violation. – ff524 Jan 16 '18 at 1:34
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There are very few things, if any, that professors are prohibited from asking. Asking some things (e.g., sexual orientation or marital status) might get a professor in trouble if a complaint is raised and the professor lacks a good reason for asking for the information. While asking for and obtaining previous grades could lead to a FERPA violation (or some other misdeed), I doubt a department chair would ever reprimand a professor for asking.

Now for why the professor might be asking for the grade, sometimes it is easier to ask the student then use the online system or go through the department administrator. Most likely, they are asking about the grade as a potential conversation starter. The issues they want to talk about possibly depend on the grade you got. For example, asking a D student if topic X was covered probably does not make as much sense as asking an A student. Asking a C student if they understand topic X might provide more insight than asking an A student.

I would suggest you just tell them the grade. If you are really worried tell the professor you don't like discussing grades but would be happy to talk about the content of the course.

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    How do you type with boxing gloves on? ;) – skia.heliou Jan 15 '18 at 19:57
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    @skia.heliou DELETED – StrongBad Jan 15 '18 at 20:01
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    @skia.heliou for you direct communication is more efficient, but for the professor with 100s of students derived notions might work better. – StrongBad Jan 15 '18 at 20:11
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    As I commented elsewhere, I think there are better ways to get that information and feel of the class than asking for previous grades. I think that it is just as likely that "It can help me feel out my class" could be an excuse and cover for "I'm lazy. At the end, I'm just going to give them a random grade within 1 or 2 steps of their previous grade." I have known multiple teachers who have done things like the latter, or worse, but none that I recall who did the former. – Aaron Jan 15 '18 at 23:45
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    @Aaron sure they could be doing something bad with the information, but it doesn't mean they cannot ask. If they really are that lazy, then I am not sure it is advantageous to make yourself out to be the difficult student. – StrongBad Jan 15 '18 at 23:48
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When I was taking a class that required a pre-requisite and our teacher asked for the grade we got in that class he was ultimately trying to gauge his students.

He wanted to gauge how well everyone in the class understood the previous material. Based on the grades we gave him became a deciding factor on whether or not he would briefly go over the previous material the first week of class or just jump right into the new material.

I don't know this teacher but typically teacher's like to get a feel for the students that are taking their class. If a teacher can gather a better overall understanding of the students in the class they could use that information to better teach their students.

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You said you don't like the feel of the situation, but as someone with hardly any facts I would suggest turning it around and saying something like "We both know that grades are somewhat arbitrary - what specific information are you trying to get at via my previous grade? If you're concerned that I am lacking a skill or set of knowledge that is crucial for this class, I'd be glad to answer more specific questions regarding my abilities/knowledge, and work with you so I can remedy any deficiencies in my previous coursework that we might discover together."

This way, you don't go straight to federal regulations in the event that the request that they're just taking a poll to see who might need extra attention/help (i.e 'don't make a federal case over it [unless it's necessary]').

But obviously if they are demanding your grade, and won't reveal why, then consider reporting it to the department chair/ombudsperson/etc. You can probably do this even if you got a good grade and you decide to share it with the instructor to get them off your back.

  • I agree (as @Bob Brown states), he could be scoping out students for people who need more help or less. He could also be choosing who to ignore as they aren't worth his time, or any number of things. I don't know him, and when something strikes me as off, I go with my intuition. In this case it's a matter of wanting to know my options before I go into negotiation – skia.heliou Jan 15 '18 at 19:56
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    @skia.heliou While grades of a single students can be arbitrary, from my experience if most students in a large class got a C- in pre-req, the class on average is much less prepared to handle the second course than if most students got an A-. And this information can help me teach from the beginning at the level of the class. And note that if I ask this information from the entire class, I really don't care what YOU did in the previous class, I care in general how most of the class did in the previous course. – Nick S Jan 15 '18 at 21:53
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    @NickS Something I've done in the past is to make up a very short quiz covering the topics that should already be known. If students are concerned about doing that, then I have told them they can feel free to submit it anonymously. Sometimes I have even said up front "You don't need to sign your name to this quiz that I give on day 1; it's just to see where the class is at." – Aaron Jan 15 '18 at 23:49
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    @NickS On the other hand, if you want aggregate statistics rather than data about individuals, then you can anonymize it: for example, you could ask everyone to put a slip of paper into a hat with their grade in the prereq class with no identifying information on it. Or you could follow something like Aaron's idea. That said, in something like office hours, you might ask this of a student to help you know where to begin answering their actual question (because their question may really be rooted in something which is not exactly embedded in the question itself). – Ian Jan 16 '18 at 0:06
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    @NickS If all you are looking for is an aggregate compilation of the previous grades, a link to an anonymous Google survey in the email is perhaps even a better solution. It take almost no time to do and more students are likely to just do it if it is requested in such a way. In addition, these surveys will do aggregations for you instead of requiring the professor to go through each email and keep a tally – PunPun1000 Jan 17 '18 at 17:53
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To ask such questions in the U.S. is, at least, ill-considered. The obvious possible sense of it, in the best-case scenario, is out of concern whether students are adequately prepared. But, to my mind, knowing prior grades does also have great potential for prejudicing expectations on the part of the instructor. Deflecting the question would be in everyone's best interest. So, no, teachers should not ask this question (in the U.S.). And even their interest in knowing the quality of the preparation of their students, while understandable, is slightly beyond what is appropriate, except as aggregate.

EDIT: in response to one comment, I am not suggesting that grading might be unfair. I am suggesting that students often rise (or sink) to expectations expressed (possibly subtly) by teachers, etc.

Further, first, in the U.S., FERPA seems to indicate that current instructors are not automatically entitled to access to their (current) students' prior grades. Ok. Doesn't say they're not allowed to ask, but, again, the instructor will know who declined to give the info, and students may worry about that, too, since if they decline, this creates an impression, etc.

Rather than asking for the (anyway, in my opinion, dubious) info of "prior grade(s)", why not do a diagnostic/review quiz or quizzes? This gives better-quality information, and avoids all sorts of potential psychological issues.

Again, even if the instructor's intentions are good, asking for prior grades has too many problematical aspects, and a better quality sort of information can be acquired otherwise.

So, "can they ask": sure, I guess. Should they ask? I think not.

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    Would prejudiced expectations be lowered expectations or something else? – Scott H. Jan 16 '18 at 0:49
  • @ScottH., I'd imagine it could be many things. Possibly lowered expectations in a good way, or lowered expectations in a bad way. That is, to take it to extremes, presumption of success, or presumption of failure. After all, in the end, there is no truly objective measure of "success"... so it can be redefined to either include or exclude almost any given individual. Not to mention the non-objectivity of "grading" in upper division math courses, for example. (Notwithstanding the (ridiculous) pretense that "rubrics" successfully objectify everything... ) – paul garrett Jan 16 '18 at 0:53
  • Ok, thanks for the reply. I'm struggling to reconcile my thoughts (that perfect information would be better for everyone involved, and that lack of strength in a prereq will come to light regardless) with the objections that have been given. I guess that I haven't thought as much about human weakness coming into play. – Scott H. Jan 16 '18 at 1:06
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    Some people grade blind - even in the U.S., where it is not standard. I'd be more concerned about the information being requested by email than its being requested per se. There are legitimate pedagogical reasons for wanting to know this kind of information. This answer is too sweeping in its generalisations. – cfr Jan 16 '18 at 2:24
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    @cfr Teaching does require figuring out what students currently do and don't know, which is exactly why it makes no sense to rely on a single piece of ambiguous information from a previous term. – Elizabeth Henning Jan 17 '18 at 6:27
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Have you considered not answering? This is an information you may or may not want to give out, and if he does not have access to it, you do not have to provide your previous grade.

From browsing this SE i have come to the impression that professors sometimes tend to not anser e-mail either, so it probably wouldn't come off as rude.

Like you stated in a comment, he either could be looking for people who need additional help or he might be checking out who is worth his time and who is not.

In any case, if you did score an acceptable grade, it wouldn't hurt to tell him after all ;)

  • Maybe he only wants to find out the approximate background of the students, which will tell him how many details he should give. With the students refusing to give the information, his most natural choices would be to start the class assuming that all students understood perfectly the subject in the pre-req and skip over the easy steps or go over everything. The first choice is bad FOR STUDENTS if most students in the class barely got a C-, while the second choice is bad FOR STUDENTS if they all aced the previous class. With the extra information, it would be easier to decide... – Nick S Jan 15 '18 at 21:49
  • the level of details needed, while without the Prof would only get the background info from the Midterm exam... – Nick S Jan 15 '18 at 21:49
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The professor of my current class asked that I give him my grade for that previous class. (This was an e-mail sent to me and all my classmates.)

If the question feels intrusive, you don't need to answer. You might respond

I feel well prepared for this course and I'm looking forward to building on previous knowledge and skills during the coming weeks.

It sounds like the instructor didn't explain his motivation for the question, and if so, I would encourage you to let the department take a look at his email. However, the safest way of preventing administrative bumbling that might result in retaliation would be to wait until the end of the semester.

It's very possible that the instructor made an honest mistake but meant well, and would benefit from some departmental guidance.

However, if the instructor's intention was for students to share their previous grade with the whole group, that would be different. In that case I would inform the department immediately.

By the way, this has nothing to do with FERPA. FERPA doesn't protect you from intrusive questions (you might have been thinking about employment laws that protect job candidates from intrusive, irrelevant questions). FERPA protects you from disclosure of your protected information without your consent. For example, FERPA would protect you from this instructor obtaining your previous grade from a fellow professor, a secretary, or an administrator, and giving that information to someone inappropriate without your consent (for example, giving it to another student in the class).

The Department of Education has a page called "Model Notifications of Rights under FERPA for Postsecondary Institutions," which says

A postsecondary institution may disclose PII [personally identifiable information] from the education records without obtaining prior written consent of the student to other school officials, including teachers, within the [School] whom the school has determined to have legitimate educational interests.

This means that if your instructor can convince someone on staff with access to your previous grade to give it to him (which I would guess would not be very difficult), then he doesn't need to ask you.

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