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In the United States, federal law prohibits professors from releasing any student's grades to any party other than the student and any party whom the student authorizes to receive the grades.

One of my professors appears to be violating this law by uploading each student's lab grades in one file, which is accessible to anyone who is enrolled in the class.

Here is my proposed plan of action:

  1. Ask the professor - in private - to post the grades using the online management system the professor already uses for other things.

  2. If the professor doesn't fix this privacy violation, inform the professor that the method by which he/she post grades is a violation of federal law.

  3. As a last resort, contact the department dean.

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    Go with your proposed plan. I never had a problem with your professor's actions, but I understand many people like their grades to be private.
    – The Guy
    Apr 10, 2016 at 2:15
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    Is it of the form "<anonymous code>, <grade>"?
    – Nick T
    Apr 10, 2016 at 2:17
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    Is there even a real question here? It sounds like you're just itching for a fight of some sort.
    – Nick T
    Apr 10, 2016 at 2:19
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    @NickT: The question is clear in the title: "How should I address...?" The OP offers one suggestion for how to address it, which implies that he/she would like to know whether this approach is reasonable. Apr 11, 2016 at 3:14
  • 1
    Update: Professor responded favorably to my request.
    – moonman239
    Apr 14, 2016 at 18:00

3 Answers 3

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Go with option number 1. See what happens.

1) Ask the professor - in private -

If you're just worried about your grade being posted, may be you can ask him to at least remove your grade from there and leave the rest for the students that want to know their grades as soon as possible. Either that, or may be he could just post people's student ids next to each grade. Or assign a random id himself once, and use that id to communicate future grade reports.

Do note that some online management systems are not all that user-friendly, especially compared to an excel spreadsheet. So do not mandate the way he should solve the problem, mention the problem, and discuss the kind of solutions that may be acceptable to you.

Also note that some grades only affect a tiny percentage of the entire course grade. So that is why some Professors are less worried about the privacy implications of releasing those grades publicly.

And yes, option 2 and 3 would work too, if option 1 doesn't work, but hopefully you won't need to escalate. As you can see from this Supreme Court decision regarding peer-grading, FERPA is not as absolute as you might believe. Furthermore, very few students would have the motivation or the tenacity to pursue this issue in a court of law.

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    Reading the article you linked to, I wonder how these cottonwool-wrapped kids are ever going to survive in the real world.
    – Jessica B
    Apr 11, 2016 at 6:39
  • Yes, the article I found is a bit much. Also, that article is only attracting comments from parents that have been googling for that topic. I think the Supreme Court made the right call in that case. Apr 11, 2016 at 7:13
  • Using student IDs would also be a FERPA violation, since they're personally identifiable information, but assigning random #s specifically for this purpose works. Complaints nearly identical to OPs have been found to be violations. The reasoning in the peer grading case wouldn't apply here.
    – Hungry
    Apr 11, 2016 at 16:09
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I would go straight to your departments director of teaching (or similar person) and not approach the professor directly. The downside of going directly to the professor is that he/she can hold it against you. There is no real upside of going to the professor directly. Assuming the professor is not a habitual nuisance to the department, a FERPA violation like this will not result in any repercussions. The department chair/director of teaching will simply verify if the professor's behavior is a FERPA violation and if so, tell the professor to cut it out.

If you go to your director of teaching, your name will likely never be mentioned. The DoT can verify the information without you and there is no upside for him/her to reveal your name. There is of course still a chance the DoT will not be discrete. In my experience, things like FERPA violations are a big enough deal that departments like to address them quickly.

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    "There is no real upside of going to the professor directly." I disagree. The upside is that there is a good shot that the problem gets resolved immediately and everyone walks away happy. That's quite an upside. In general, whenever you have an issue with a professor, you should try first to resolve it with them. Note also that going over someone's head before talking to them certainly also risks that they may "hold it against you." Moreover, "Your name will never be mentioned." Come on: you are certainly not in a position to guarantee this. Apr 11, 2016 at 12:43
  • @PeteL.Clark hopefully the edit helps explain my position.
    – StrongBad
    Apr 11, 2016 at 12:49
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Objetively, I think you should ask a lawyer just to be sure before taking it to the dean, since it's a federal law violation and acussing someone of that would make a huge deal. And you wouldn't want to make a fuss over something for being ill informed.

Personally, I think you shouldn't care whether your professor uploads your grades where somene else can see them or not (even if it's a crime or whatever, i wouldn't give a single care).

Good luck with whatever you decide to do.

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    I disagree. As I understand it, it's the university that is potentially violating federal law, not the individual professor. OP should definitely report the situation to the dean, without being accusatory, and then the dean should consult a lawyer. (I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.)
    – JeffE
    Apr 11, 2016 at 1:23
  • @JeffE: it's the professor who's showing the student IDs on the gradebook.
    – moonman239
    Apr 11, 2016 at 21:39

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