WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that students may grade each other's work in class without violating federal privacy law, deciding the case of a learning disabled boy whose classmates ridiculed his scores and called him a ''dummy.''
The 9-0 ruling upheld the common schoolroom practice of having students swap homework, quizzes or other schoolwork and then correct one another's work as the teacher goes over it aloud. Sometimes the teacher then has students call out the results, and the teacher records them.
''Correcting a classmate's work can be as much a part of the assignment as taking the test itself,'' Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for himself and seven colleagues. Justice Antonin Scalia filed a separate concurring opinion.
''It is a way to teach material again in a new context, and it helps show students how to assist and respect fellow pupils,'' wrote Kennedy, a former law professor who still teaches several classes a year.
An Oklahoma mother challenged the practice as embarrassing and a violation of a federal law protecting the privacy of student education records, such as a transcript.
Kristja Falvo's case became a battle between the education establishment and conservative groups interested in promoting parental rights in schools.
Students and teachers should not have the power to reveal another student's record -- in this case a grade or teacher's note -- without a parent's permission, Falvo and her supporters argued.
Her children's school, joined by other school districts and the Bush administration, argued that the 1974 privacy law was not meant to be read that way. In passing the law, Congress was concerned about preserving the privacy of the final, institutional records of a school, not the results of one day's class work, the Bush administration argued.
The Supreme Court agreed, noting that ruling the other way would invite the federal government to make minute decisions about how a classroom is run.
In other action Tuesday, the court:
n Said it would consider the constitutionality of Internet registries listing the names of convicted sex offenders who had completed their punishment. The ruling could affect sex offender laws in dozens of states that publish the names, addresses or other personal information about convicted sex offenders on the Internet.
n Agreed to intervene in a fight over copyrights, deciding whether Congress has sided too heavily with writers and other inventors. The outcome will determine when hundreds of thousands of books, songs and movies will be freely available on the Internet or in digital libraries.
During November's oral argument session in Falvo's case, a few justices waxed nostalgic about their own school days, or about such seemingly harmless customs as the awarding of a gold star for good work.
On Tuesday, Kennedy noted that Falvo's lawyer had seemed to argue ''that if a teacher in any of the thousands of covered classrooms in the nation puts a happy face, a gold star or a disapproving remark on a classroom assignment, federal law does not allow other students to see it.''
''We doubt Congress meant to intervene in this drastic fashion,'' Kennedy wrote.
Falvo said Tuesday she has been contacted by parents throughout the country who object to the grading practice, and she still hopes to see it end. Congress could ban the practice, or schools could discontinue it on their own, she said.
''Maybe they won't use it, because sometimes something legal isn't healthy,'' she said.
The nation's largest teachers' union called the ruling a victory for teacher's power to run their own classrooms.
A decision in Falvo's favor would have forced teachers ''to spend time grading papers instead of preparing for class and actually teaching,'' said Michael Simpson, general counsel for the 2.6 million-member National Education Association.
The court did not spend much time on a separate issue in the case -- whether the 1974 law allows private lawsuits such as Falvo's. The court assumed for the purposes of this case that the lawsuit was proper, but plans to revisit that question in an unrelated case later this year.
The current case is Owasso Independent School District v. Falvo, 00-1073.
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