The verdict is in: Databases (might be) useful

The Oakland Post is a good training ground for any Oakland University student majoring in journalism, and it's generally a fun paper to work for as well. This story I'm about to tell was not one of those fun instances.

Last July the New York Times and several others ran articles about a study saying that the practice of college grade inflation was on the rise. "A" grades were being given in 43% of cases.

I decided I wanted to get an Oakland angle on this story. The university publishes grade reports by semester.

The problem with Oakland's databases is that they are actually Excel spreadsheets. This does not make the data easily sortable and there's a lot of manually clicking on the numbers to do math.

Nevertheless, I pressed on with this one. Maybe I saw a portfolio piece (one of my six clips I need to graduate from the journalism program here). Maybe I'm just a journalism masochist.

Through a painstakingly long process, I was able to determine that for both winter 2005 and winter 2010, OU's numbers for A’s given was theoretically higher than the national average.

That's right. I just broke a cardinal rule in journalism. I used a bailout word. Why do I say "theoretically"?

None of the articles I saw on this actually listed the study authors’ definition of an A. Is it strictly 4.0? Is it anywhere between 3.6 and 4.0, the "A range." I actually attempted to look into this again for the purpose of this blog post, but it appears that the publishers of studies don't believe quite as strongly as journalists that information should be free.

Even if I had a solid definition of what was considered an A grade, at some point between 2005 and 2011 Oakland just started lumping all grades between 3.6-4.0 together for statistical tracking purposes. This means that if the authors had only tracked perfect GPAs it would have been impossible to make a fair comparison.

At some point, I would like to take another stab at this particular story if I can figure out how to do it. One of the interesting things I noticed was there were certain classes where 95 or 100 percent of the class got a grade in the A range. I noticed this a lot in some of the art classes, where one might think it would be very difficult to objectively grade something. In comparison, there were times when there was no one in the A range in the upper-level science classes. One could look into what makes those so hard.

Databases can be useful, but you have to make sure they actually tell you the information you're looking for.