A New York Times article this last weekend described a novel use of freedom of information law. The new owners of CourseRank.com (a course information website for college students like ratemyprofessors.com), requested aggregate grade data by course and professor from some 533 colleges nationwide, including Florida Atlantic University, Florida Gulf Coast University, and the University of Florida. (Nova Southeastern University is included on the website, but does not seem to include grade distributions, which makes sense since it is not subject to Florida open-government law.)
Lisa A. Phillips, the author of the New York Times story and a SUNY New Paltz journalism professor, has ethical qualms about the impact this will have on grade inflation. She quotes experts who say both that it will contribute to grade inflation, by directing students to classes and professors with “better” grade distributions, and discourage it, but revealing which professors grade too leniently.
But what I (and my most excellent colleague Becka Rich, who brought this to my attention) think is more interesting are the implications of this.
First, there are the ethical issues, some of which are raised above. Second, there is the conflict with FERPA. The second question Becka asked me was, “Could this happen in Florida?” We now know that the answer is “Yes.”
This type of open-records request can be used in public-policy research: see Richard J. Peltz, From the Ivory Tower to the Glass House: Access to “De-Identified” Public University Admission Records to Study Affirmative Action, 25 Harv. BlackLetter L.J. 181 (2009). It has also been used by mainstream journalists, as with a recent Chicago Tribune series on politically preferential admissions at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (see all Chicago Tribume articles about the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign).