FERPA, or the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, established in 1974, often has to be considered when planning to conduct research involving the use of educational records. While FERPA seeks to provide parents or students with the rights to inspect files and request the correction of information as needed, the law also acts to ensure the privacy of student records.
This guarantee of confidentiality of educational records often, by its very nature, has repercussions on those who wish to conduct research on educational practices. While schools can release directory information without explicit consent, all other information is protected.
Student academic records, including tests, journals, written assignments etc., are considered part of the student’s academic record. FERPA requirements apply to investigators conducting research involving academic information even when this information is obtained from their own students.
Those who wish to obtain data from educational records beyond directory information, for the purposes of research, are generally limited to three options:
1. The researcher may contact and obtain written consent for each individual (or parent/guardian) whose records will be accessed for research purposes. Written consent must 1) specify the records that may be disclosed, 2) state the purpose of the disclosure and 3) identify the party/parties who will receive the disclosed information.
2. A school official with legitimate access (other than the researcher) may strip the records of any identifying information and provide the data to the researcher. In other words, educational records may be released to a researcher if all personally identifying information has been removed.
3. The holder of the record may invoke an exception to FERPA in order to release the records to the researcher. When invoking an exception for the use of educational records, the holder of the records must specifically cite the exception to the regulation in writing. The exceptions that may be used for educational research are:
• If the researcher is a school official with legitimate educational interest [34 CFR 99.31(a)(1); or
• If the researcher is conducting studies for or on behalf of the school [34 CFR 99.31(a)(6).
When planning to conduct research involving educational records, the FERPA exception letter should be submitted to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) along with the IRB application. In most cases involving educational records held by elementary and secondary schools, this letter should come from the school district’s superintendent. The University Registrar is usually the official from whom this letter should come for research involving educational records held by a university. The use of personal, identifiable data for research purposes must always be approved by the IRB prior to the researcher obtaining access to such data.
Additional information on FERPA may be found at the website of the Department of Education at https://studentprivacy.ed.gov/resources/family-educational-rights-and-privacy-act-regulations-ferpa
For specific questions regarding FERPA and research, please contact Dr. Patel, the IRB Chairperson.