FERPA protects the privacy interests of students in their education records. It generally prohibits the disclosure of a student's personally identifiable information from education records without the consent of the parent or eligible student. An eligible student is one who reaches the age of 18 years old and/or attends a postsecondary educational institution, in which case the rights of the parent transfer to the student.
Under StudentTracker for High Schools, districts disclose personally identifiable information about their high school students to the National Student Clearinghouse. They do so in compliance with FERPA, as there are several circumstances under which the general prohibition against nonconsensual release of information does not apply.
As part of their StudentTracker for High Schools service, districts transmit the names, dates of birth and graduation dates of their former students to the Clearinghouse. The Clearinghouse compares the data to the postsecondary student records of its more than 3,300 participating colleges and universities. It transmits to districts aggregate reports and detailed records of the college enrollment of their high school alumni, identifying colleges where they enrolled, attendance dates, degrees earned, etc.
The U.S. Department of Education's Family Policy Compliance Office (FPCO) has the responsibility to enforce FERPA and interpret its applicability. FPCO has issued legal opinions concerning the FERPA compliance of StudentTracker activities.
On August 2, 1999, FPCO issued the Clearinghouse a letter stating, "...the StudentTracker program complies with the requirements of FERPA regarding the release or disclosure of personally identifiable information from education records on a nonconsensual basis." The letter can be viewed and downloaded from FPCO's Web site.
The crux of FPCO's opinion is that high schools may release data to the Clearinghouse without obtaining written consent, when the information released is "directory information." Directory information is defined as information about students that is generally not considered harmful or an invasion of privacy if disclosed, such as:
"The student's name, address, telephone listing, date and place of birth, major field of study, participation in officially recognized activities and sports, weight and height of members of athletic teams, dates of attendance, degrees and awards received and the most recent education agency or institution attended by the student." (20 U.S.C. §1232g(a)(5)(A))
The data elements that high schools release to the Clearinghouse under the StudentTracker service (i.e. student names, dates of birth, graduation dates) are all within the permissible directory information parameters. Schools must designate the kind of information they want to include in their definition of directory information, and they must publicly notify parents and students about their definition and their right to block the release of such information without their consent. By following these practices, high schools can utilize StudentTracker in a FERPA compliant manner.