Grad Student Complaint Raises Legal, Data Security Questions At PSU

By Rob Manning (OPB)
Portland, Ore. March 10, 2018 5:56 p.m.

A graduate student’s complaint about a research assignment is raising broader questions about how to protect the rights of students and parents, as teaching colleges seek to help eliminate Oregon’s entrenched achievement gaps based on race and income.

In allegations first reported in Willamette Week this week, grad student Ezra Whitman accused professors in Portland State University's Graduate School of Education of requiring students to break the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, by collecting students' race, gender and other data.


PSU professors acknowledge the assignment pushed boundaries and delved into sensitive areas around race and student achievement, but contend there was nothing improper in the assignment. University officials said they’re taking a closer look. In the meantime, PSU has canceled plans to present their findings at an upcoming conference, though no decision has been made yet on whether to rescind a manuscript under review at a national academic journal.

The Assignment

All sides agree on what was assigned. The Equitable Student Learning assignment  required graduate students, as student-teachers in Portland-area high schools, to start out by setting a baseline of knowledge for their students. Often that was done by administering a pre-test, a fairly typical exercise for classroom teachers in starting a new unit.

The following steps raised concerns from Whitman, other graduate students and another faculty member at PSU, Jean Aguilar-Valdez. The focus on “equity” called for students to document performance on the pre-test and throughout the subsequent lessons, in a chart which included student ethnicity, income and special education status — all protected classes under federal law. Faculty say they counseled grad students to remove children’s names, to maintain data security.

Related: In Oregon, Achievement Gaps In English And Math Start Before Kindergarten

Student-teachers were then told to teach lessons in the unit, monitor student progress and provide extra help — interventions they would design — along the way. At the end of the unit, school children would be assessed again to see how well they learned the lessons. But again, a major focus was on tracking student progress of students considered on the losing side of historic achievement gaps: students of color, students with disabilities and students from low-income backgrounds.

“The participants must also give a pre and post-test to determine student learning and they are required to describe the learning of students by subgroup (i.e., gender, ethnic group, learning differences),” according to a description of the assignment by lead professor Susan Lenski.

But Lenski said students were allowed to not collect the subgroup data if they were not comfortable doing so or were going to have trouble obtaining it. Students were also allowed to document non-demographic subgroups of their own creation, such as students who were frequently absent. However, graduate students were aware that professors planned to write a research article based on their classroom data — an article that would be titled “How Well do Student Teachers Overcome the Achievement Gap when Teaching a Unit of Study?”


Whitman argued that requiring student-teachers to access protected student information may have violated the law, in part because student-teachers were accessing the information through the logins of staff at their host site schools.  PSU points to sections of FERPA that allow for the collection of student data by "school officials with legitimate educational interests." That protection extends to student-teachers in the view of PSU administrators, according to a statement from Associate Vice President Christopher Broderick.

“Under FERPA, our understanding is that student teachers supervised by classroom teachers have the same rights and responsibilities under FERPA and are permitted to access student data for educational purposes,” Broderick said.

PSU professors designed it in response to a “mandate” from Oregon’s Teachers Standards and Practices Commission in further research through an “Equitable Student Learning” assignment, according to the university’s graduate school of education.

PSU professors argue the assignment is similar to a recently abandoned part of teacher licensure, called the “work sample.” Lenski told OPB that Portland State’s Institutional Review Board looked at the assignment twice — once beforehand, and again after Whitman and Aguilar-Valdez raised concerns.

“It was cleared,” Lenski told OPB by phone from Chile, where she is on sabbatical for the 2017-18 school year.

PSU professors argue that accessing that information was optional and, regardless, was covered under FERPA for two reasons: The university was not publishing individual student information — the information was being combined and averaged; and because it was covered under the law’s “legitimate educational interests” provision.

Lenski later clarified to OPB that the IRB review is not the same as a FERPA audit (which had not been done).

“Our typical IRB process includes student privacy issues and IRB didn’t see a need for anything further,” Lenski said.

Portland State University campus in fall 2015.

Portland State University campus in fall 2015.

Alan Sylvestre / OPB


The use of private student data is complicated by two other factors: The PSU professors plan to publish research in a national academic journal based on the collected data; and the legal permissions appear different, based on what school district in which the graduate students are teaching.

School District Agreements

Portland State's right to analyze private student data is based partly on federal law, but also on agreements the graduate school has with individual school districts. At least one of those contracts appear to grant PSU graduate students wide latitude to gather student data: The contract with the Hillsboro School District, which OPB obtained from the district.

“The University’s students may conduct research projects within the school(s) of the District when activities are consistent with the educational program of the District,” reads a portion of the Hillsboro contract.

Later, the Hillsboro agreement clarifies that “University and Student [the graduate student-teacher] are considered a ‘school official’ of the District for purposes of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (‘FERPA’).”

But the contract with Portland Public Schools that PSU officials shared with OPB, lacks some of those explicit allowances. Instead, the PPS contract emphasizes limits on the uses of student data.

Related: Oregon Standardized Test Scores Show Racial Gaps Remain

“Except in very specific circumstances, Institution and Student [the graduate student-teacher] shall not disclose to any other party without prior consent of the parent/guardian any information or records regarding students or their families that Institution or Student may learn or obtain the course and scope of its performance of this Contract,” reads the PSU agreement with Oregon’s largest school district.

PSU professors confirm that no notice was given to parents of students, nor was it seriously considered. PSU professors said it wasn’t necessary because the graduate students were the subjects of the research experiment, not the children in the public schools, whose data was being collected. Whitman disagrees with that decision.

“For the intention of research and generating new data, and doing these little experiments on a human subject for that matter, and then looking for results and taking those results elsewhere — requires consent,” Whitman told OPB.

Another difference between the two contracts is that Hillsboro receives $220 per full-time assigned student-teacher, while the PPS contract specifies that “No payment is required under this Agreement,” though it mentions the possibility of stipends for mentor teachers.

According to Whitman, the specifics of these contracts were never shared with student-teachers.

Data Security

There’s another reason that PSU professors said that parent consent wasn’t necessary and that the research abided by federal law: The student data was anonymized — in other words, student names and other information that would directly identify students was supposed to be removed.

But that raises concerns that Whitman and other education data watchdogs have about how data is collected and kept. Whitman contends that even if the law allows graduate students to access student data and use it for research, they’re not properly trained on how to protect that data.

Related: Class Of 2025: Follow Students From 1st Grade To Graduation

“I think it’s breaking the law, because it’s being allowed to leave the secure platform by someone who isn’t trained,” Whitman said. “I do feel that’s a violation of the law.”

If that’s a problem, Whitman admits it’s probably not unique to the “Equitable Student Learning” assignment. Graduate students in colleges of education regularly participate in research efforts under the tutelage of university professors, with the support of licensed classroom teachers. The PSU-Hillsboro contract has specific language about university research in school classrooms. Portland Public Schools has embarked on a groundbreaking partnership at Faubion K-8 with Concordia University, integrating research and teacher training on a shared campus where grad students and public school students share the same hallways.

But the practical implications of pulling secure student data out of public school computer systems, analyzing that data and submitting it to university professors raises questions. Professors acknowledge students would sometimes submit data related to individual students, rather than combined into groups to protect identification, but problematic submissions would be deleted.

Whitman calls the lack of training “negligent,” particularly since the data involves vulnerable student populations: children of color and kids with special needs. University officials said they are re-examining its processes for handling student data and requiring more training in how to follow FERPA.

Whitman said he has struggled to get his professors to acknowledge the complexity and shortcomings of student-teachers’ data security training. An investigation of Whitman’s complaint documents how his concerns appeared to be brushed aside. University officials say they’re looking into that, too.

“We also realized that our student teachers need a better process to express concerns or questions about assignments, and we have taken steps to address this,” said PSU Graduate School of Education Dean Marvin Lynn.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed information about how Portland State University handles individualized student data to professor Susan Lenski. OPB regrets the error.