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A Northfield High School teacher who posted the names and grades of students with the best test scores thought it was a good way to praise his high fliers and motivate the rest.

Turns out it was against the law, according to state officials.

In an advisory opinion, the Minnesota Department of Administration agreed with a parent who complained that posting her son's test results in class for all to see was a violation of state law protecting student data.

The Northfield case illustrates how fine the line can seem between celebrating the work of bright students and violating their privacy. According to experts in education law, it's generally OK for schools to announce who makes the honor roll or graduates with the highest class rank. But revealing a student's grade on a class test in math or history -- without written permission -- is a no-no.

The state's advice raised some eyebrows, including those of Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. The advisory opinion seems like an extreme interpretation of law that "would change a lot of common practices," he said.

"To be able to show students ... the best work in a class seems to be a good thing from my perspective," Kyte said.

Others disagreed, including Katy Hallberg, a retired calculus teacher. "I know a lot of teachers do it, but I think it's a real mistake," said Hallberg, who taught at Prior Lake High School. Naming top test-takers puts undue pressure on them and doesn't build team spirit in class, she argued.

Northfield's case went to the state after a parent reported in the fall of 2008 that an Advanced Placement teacher had posted her son's name and test score on the blackboard after a test, along with the names and scores of other students who had earned A's or B's.

The teacher said that sharing top test results was a common motivational strategy that he had learned at a professional conference, according to the district.

The district, though, believed that the practice was probably against state and federal laws. Administrators took "swift action," telling the teacher to stop, said Northfield Superintendent Chris Richardson. The parent then took the process a step further by seeking legal guidance from the state Commissioner of Administration.

The state's opinion is nonbinding and did not lead to any penalties for the district, and the teacher was not disciplined, Richardson said.

The advisory opinion, issued in June, was highlighted this month in the Department of Administration's quarterly roundup of notable rulings on data privacy and public records. It does not identify the teacher or student involved, and attempts to reach them for comment were unsuccessful.

'Common practices'

Teachers probably have become more careful about sharing student data in recent years, but it's still not uncommon for them to talk about individual grades in class, Kyte said. Over the years, he said, he has heard of many teachers naming the top performers as they pass back an assignment or test.

That's not to say teachers should call out the names of kids who flunk a test, Kyte said. "That would seem kind of punitive to me, but to be able to say 'The five people that did the best were Charlie and Sarah, Jane, Bill and Sue,' would seem to me to be a positive thing."

Legally, though, the Northfield teacher wasn't allowed to identify top test-takers, said Laurie Beyer-Kropuenske, director of the information policy analysis division of the state's Administration Department. That would still be true even if the teacher hadn't specified their scores or grades, she said.

Susan Clark, an AP U.S. history teacher at Lakeville North High School, said she sometimes tells her classes what the highest, lowest and average score was on a test. When it comes to using names, though, "I would always ask the student first," she said. "I think there are students who don't like the attention, because then they feel like people are saying, 'Oh, no, not her again.'"

Federal law does allow school districts to release certain types of student information, including awards such as National Merit Scholarships or inclusion on the honor roll.

'Peer grading' acceptable

Also, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that federal law does not prohibit teachers from having students score each other's tests in class. "Peer grading" is acceptable largely because the assignments have not yet been entered into school records, the court decided.

Of course, laws can't keep teenagers from talking about their own grades. At Simley High School in Inver Grove Heights, gossip about test scores spreads like wildfire among students, said Mike Murr, who teaches AP European history. The day the results come back from exams students take to earn college credit in AP classes, "The text messages are flying."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016