Blog: The Educated Reporter

Story Ideas for Using Federal Data Sets

You’ve just read a heavy dose of federal data tips to bolster your reporting. The data sets themselves, however, can yield pretty interesting story ideas. Here are a few examples for three data sets explored in the Story Lab. 

The High School Longitudinal Study

Two important reports based on the longitudinal study are expected during the summer of 2015. One is the High School Transcript Study, which should allow reporters to see all the courses that the kids took in high school and drill down on course-taking differences by gender, ethnicity/race and income.

Story ideas:

  • What percentage of U.S. students are entering higher education with college credits from high school?
  • How well are students being prepared for technical careers while in high school?
  • Compare the college-readiness data here to other studies and find out if U.S. students are faring better or worse than previously thought.

Another is the brief update on student activities after the 12th grade. Reporters will have information on where these kids applied to college, where they were accepted and where they planned to go in the fall of 2013. We’ll also learn about their intended majors and financial aid. For students that did not intend to go to college, we’ll learn where they were working, how much they were making, why they chose not going to college and what their future educational and career aspirations are.

Story ideas:

  • How do educational opportunities vary by income and race. For example, how many colleges does  the typical high-income student apply to compared with a typical low-income student with the same grades and test scores?
  • What high school courses did math and science majors take?  
  • What are high school dropouts doing?

The National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) — A Reporter’s Friend

The National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) is the closest thing we have to a exam in the U.S. where we can compare academic performance among student groups in different states. You can also compare assessment scores among different ethnicities, races and income groups.

Story ideas:

  • Where are black middle school students improving the most?
  • Where are low-income elementary students losing ground?
  • Where are high school girls  closing the math gap with boys?

Reporting Data Tips

Researchers advise journalists to consider the questions they hope to answer in their reporting to better structure their stories. If it’s an inference the journalist is after, here are key terms to learn that regularly appear in the introductions to reports:

  • Descriptive — “U.S. grade eight math achievement gaps are narrowing”
  • Predictive — “Students who score above X are likely ready for college/career”
  • Causal — “Head Start boosts early student learning.”


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