Controversial PSU Research That Raised FERPA Concerns Withdrawn

By Rob Manning (OPB)
Portland, Ore. March 15, 2018 11:11 p.m.
Portland State University

Portland State University

Alan Sylvestre / OPB

An academic paper based on controversial research by faculty at Portland State University’s education school has been withdrawn from possible publication.


A national academic journal had been reviewing PSU’s paper, which was based on data that grad students had collected in public school classrooms.

The assignment asked teachers-in-training to track the performance of their middle and high school students based on demographics like ethnicity, gender and special education status — and share that information for future publication. Assessing student progress is a regular part of classroom instruction, but collecting achievement data along demographic lines for future publication brings up ethical and legal questions involving the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.

"After a lengthy meeting, no clear FERPA violations were found, but the research has been perceived to stray into a gray area," lead researcher Susan Lenski told OPB on Thursday.

Lenski said she had been asked by Marvin Lynn, the dean of PSU's Graduate School of Education, to consider withdrawing the manuscript from publication.


"The decision was made from an abundance of caution," Lenski said.

A conference presentation of the work had been previously canceled, following news stories on the research, from Willamette Week and OPB.

Neither Lenski, nor other officials at Portland State University provided the name of the journal Thursday afternoon. Education researchers do not typically release the names of journals where manuscripts have been submitted until they have been accepted for publication.

Graduate student Ezra Whitman alleged the research violated federal privacy laws. Whitman's concerns were supported by other graduate students and at least one faculty member, according to complaint records.

Portland State said the research followed the law and didn’t require parental consent because individual student information wasn’t shared — it was always grouped. Professors also said graduate students were not required to track the school children by demographic group if it made them uncomfortable.

Further, officials said the research focused on the effectiveness of the graduate students' teaching, rather than the performance of individual public school students.

But the suggestion that the school children were not directly involved in the research experiment has raised the hackles among some data privacy advocates and education researchers.

The PSU research assignment has also drawn criticism for unclear guidelines for how graduate students accessed and stored private student data as they analyzed it and submitted it to their professors — a concern that data privacy advocates acknowledge likely extends beyond this PSU assignment.