April 21, 1997
Mr. Brian R. Copeland
528 East 54 Street
Brooklyn, NY 11203
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your correspondence.
Dear Mr. Copeland:
I have received your letter of April 1, which reached this office on April 7. You wrote that you are "trying to obtain the 1993 P.A.M. (Performance Assessment in Mathematics) test scores of the seventh graders and the 1994 C.A.T. (California Achievement Test) test scores of the eight graders that attended Lincoln Academy", which is a public middle school in New York City. You added that you requested the records in question from the New York City Board of Education Office of Access and Compliance but that you have received no response.
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, as a general matter, the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (i) of the Law.
Relevant under the circumstances is the initial ground for denial, §87(2)(a), which pertains to records that are "specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute." In this instance, insofar as disclosure of the records in question would or could identify a student or students, I believe that they must be withheld. A statute that exempts records from disclosure is the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (20 U.S.C. section 1232g), which is commonly known as the "Buckley Amendment". In brief, the Buckley Amendment applies to all educational agencies or institutions that participate in grant programs administered by the United States Department of Education. As such, the Buckley Amendment includes within its scope virtually all public educational institutions and many private educational institutions. The focal point of the Act is the protection of privacy of students. It provides, in general, that any "education record," a term that is broadly defined, that is personally identifiable to a particular student or students is confidential, unless the parents of students under the age of eighteen waive their right to confidentiality, or unless a student eighteen years or over similarly waives his or her right to confidentiality. Further, the federal regulations promulgated under the Buckley Amendment define the phrase "personally identifiable information" to include:
"(a) The student's name; (b) The name of the student's parents or other family member; (c) The address of the student or student's family; (d) A personal identifier, such as the student's social security number or student number; (e) A list of personal characteristics that would make the student's identity easily traceable; or (f) Other information that would make the student's identity easily traceable" (34 CFR Section 99.3).
Based upon the foregoing, references to students' names or other aspects of records that would make a student's identity easily traceable must in my view be withheld in order to comply with federal law.
In a case dealing with a similar request, the records of test scores were prepared by class alphabetically. The school district contended that, even if names of students were deleted, because the lists were maintained alphabetically, the identities of some students could be made known. In determining the issue, the Court ordered that names be deleted from the records and that the records be "scrambled" in order to protect against the possible identification of students. In my view, the School District would be required to disclose test scores in a manner in which students' identities are protected. Stated differently, the test scores must be disclosed, but any identifying details pertaining to students must, in my view, be withheld.
Second, pursuant to regulations promulgated by the Committee on Open Government (21 NYCRR Part 1401), each agency is required to designate one or more persons as "records access officer." The records access officer has the duty of coordinating an agency's response to requests. Although your request was not made to the records access officer, I believe that the person in receipt of the request should have responded directly in a manner consistent with the Freedom of Information Law or forwarded the request to the records access officer. It is suggested that you contact the person in receipt of your request and/or the records access officer in an effort to determine the status of the request.
Third, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests. Specifically, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states in part that:
"Each entity subject to the provisions of this article, within five business days of the receipt of a written request for a record reasonably described, shall make such record available to the person requesting it, deny such request in writing or furnish a written acknowledgement of the receipt of such request and a statement of the approximate date when such request will be granted or denied..."
If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, or if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time after it acknowledges that a request has been received, a request may, in my opinion, be considered to have been constructively denied. In such a circumstance, I believe that the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law. That provision states in relevant part that:
"...any person denied access to a record may within thirty days appeal in writing such denial to the head, chief executive, or governing body, who shall within ten business days of the receipt of such appeal fully explain in writing to the person requesting the record the reasons for further denial, or provide access to the record sought."
In addition, it has been held that when an appeal is made but a determination is not rendered within ten business days of the receipt of the appeal as required under §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, the appellant has exhausted his or her administrative remedies and may initiate a challenge to a constructive denial of access under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Rules [Floyd v. McGuire, 87 AD 2d 388, appeal dismissed 57 NY 2d 774 (1982)].
For your information, I believe that the person designated