Thursday, May 15, 2008


Failing Too Many

The story of the Norfolk State professor fired for failing too many students (see IHE's story here) is a kind of inkblot test. My own reaction is conflicted.

At Proprietary U, similar things happened. The registrar's office gave every dean a weekly printout of drop/fail rates for every section taught in a given semester, ranked in descending order, with faculty names attached. Faculty who routinely made the upper levels of the list were problems to be managed; if they failed to change, they were to be dismissed. Although seldom verbalized, the theory behind it was twofold. First, there was the obvious financial interest in keeping tuition-paying customers from dropping out. I wasn't thrilled about that one, but there it was. The second was a bit more subtle. Since curricular options there were relatively few, any given course usually had multiple instructors. If one instructor's grades were wildly out-of-line with everybody else's, there was probably a reason. Since students shouldn't be punished, in effect, for having the 'wrong' instructor, the idea was to make sure that everybody who took, say, College Algebra had a roughly similar chance of passing, regardless of whose section they took.

The first reason was just a cold fact of life in the for-profit sector. Some of us regularly argued that any fiscal gains from lower standards were sure to be short-lived, since the real selling point of the college was employability, and if we start turning off prospective employers by graduating incompetent people, our placement rate would plummet. But that tended to get limited traction, since graduate placement rates rode economic waves to such a degree that concerns over quality control seemed like niggling.

The second reason was harder to shake off. If you get the tough grader and your friend gets the easy one for the same course, similar performances could result in dramatically different grades. Transcripts don't come with asterisks for this sort of thing, so a student who had Cruella de Ville for English Comp has a legitimate claim to unfair treatment. In the interest of fairness to students, I think colleges have a positive duty – not just a right, but an actual duty – to take reasonable steps to ensure that standards are tolerably similar across sections. (Usually the best you'll get is some variation on “given random distributions, it will come out in the wash,” which isn't terribly satisfying.) If a single professor insists on being an outlier, despite repeated warnings and efforts to engage, then there's a legitimate performance issue.

(Before the inevitable flaming, I'll say that I don't know how much of that – if any – describes the Norfolk State case. From the IHE article, it sounds like many other issues are afoot, including the dreaded 'hidden standard' that differs from the written standard. To my mind, that's an obvious wrong. What I'm doing here is not defending the dean at Norfolk State; it's trying to understand why a college would have a legitimate reason for concern about grading outliers.)

All of that said, attention to grades should absolutely cut both ways. Back at PU, I had two professors who routinely gave 90 percent or more A's, and the rest B's. One of them was an astonishingly gifted teacher who had a way of making difficult material seem obvious. The other, well, wasn't. He wasn't awful, but he wasn't anything extraordinary. I treated his promiscuous grading as a performance issue, since it undercut the other faculty's efforts. With the gifted one, I took the grading as a fairly accurate barometer of high achievement, and didn't worry so much.

This is an area in which it helps to have administrators with actual teaching experience. Anyone who has taught for a while knows that students fail or drop for many reasons, most of which have nothing to do with the instructor. It's also the case that different courses often have different drop/fail rates, and should be read accordingly. It's not unusual for students to need multiple tries to pass, say, remedial math. On the other hand, if half the class fails the senior seminar, something is wrong. That's not to deny the very real need to find more effective ways to remediate, but just to offer some context.

It also helps when you have common departmental final exams for intro courses. Since course grades are usually the sole province of the instructor, in a setting in which drop/fail percentages are scrutinized, a professor could easily game the system by curving or lowering standards. But if you have, say, a dozen different people teaching General Psych, and one professor's students always crash and burn on the common final exam relative to everybody else's, then you have a pretty good indicator of where you need to look more closely. Having some sort of external measure can help you get around the 'conflict of interest' issue.

Whether surprisingly or not, this issue really hasn't come up at my cc. There's enough awareness of the importance of degree transferability – and employability – that we really haven't encouraged laxity. As a non-profit, we have that luxury. (We don't have many luxuries, but we do have that.) And as a left-leaning sort, I like the idea that a kid without the money to 'go away' to college has access to the same academic rigor as the kid with rich parents. A former colleague of mine used to say that algebra is a civil right, and I agreed with him. To offer the less-well-off a diluted product offends my egalitarian sensibilities. If we're serious about access, it has to be access to academic rigor. Otherwise we're just babysitting. The rigor should be fair and impartial, and we need to explore the right mix of support services, tutoring, and the like to help students succeed, but that's okay. At the end of the day, the best service we can do is to provide a truly higher education, even if it takes some doing. Which it does.

The details of the Norfolk State case, as outlined in the article, are ugly. But the dilemmas underlying it are very real.

I suppose it is different elsewhere. But, I have only failed students for either not turning work in on time or plagiarizing. This semester I caught 10 out of 45 students in upper level courses plagiarizing. I only failed two, but next semester I will have a zero tolerance policy. If I had one this semester it would have mean failing over 20% of these students. Everybody who turned in all their work on time and wrote it themselves got at least a B+ in these two classes. That still left me with 18 students with lower grades due to late or plagiarized papers. So I give good grades for people who meet basic standards. But, a lot of students this semester did not even meet the very basic standard of using quotation marks.
In denying tenure, the Dean apparently wrote “... the students who enroll in the classes of Dr. Aird’s supporters achieve a greater level of success than Dr. Aird’s students.”

There is that magic word, success, clearly defined by this Dean as passing rate rather than by learning. In public discussions, our college also defines the "success rate" as the passing rate, and one of our Deans reportedly discusses grade distributions rather than learning outcomes with the faculty.

The result, particularly for some of our younger, paranoid, t-t faculty, is giving a B+ for effort (turning in the work on time, regardless of the quality as long as it is original) and passing many who did not meet basic standards of quality or originality.

Little wonder that I get kids who can't do trig or algebra. It is good for retention, and even a CC makes a profit by increasing retention and the students do manage to get an AA degree (the IPEDS measure of success). However, because someone let them by without learning trig, they will never be engineers.

Dean Dad: How would you objectively measure the "success" of your institution, or Norfolk State?

Would that Dean want to wake up in an Emergency room and see that nurse who 'passed' biology standing over her trying to figure out the correct dosage to administer?
Having administrators with teaching experience helps. Having good documentation (I show my finals and study guides when I turn in my evaluations) Academic rigor is important. At some point, we don't want to devalue the BA as much as the high school diploma has been devalued.
This seems to me to be more of a systematic curricular problem, and not necessarily an issue of standards. If most of the class is failing, doesn't that automatically indicate a problem somewhere?--- ie that either the professor can't teach, or that the professor's standards are unreasonable, or that a large percentage of the students in the class should be in a remedial class first. While it may be this professor's best available option, setting most of the class up to fail can't possibly be the best way of teaching under-prepared students.

This reminds me...have you had a chance to check out June's _Atlantic Monthly's_ polemical "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" written under the nom de guerre 'Professor X'? It seems like it would go nicely with today's topic of discussion.
Actually, the article says that the vast majority of this professor's classes only showed up to about 60 percent of the course, and so he was failing them for nonattendance, basically. There's cutting people some slack so that they don't get so discouraged that they quit, and then there's being so lax that everyone knows they don't have to put in any basic work to pass, which is this prof's claim.
The Atlantic Monthly article mentioned by Anonymous 8:19 AM is available on line. It does make interesting reading, with lots of it sounding just like what we commonly read in various academic blogs!

I can see the cartoon that leads the article appearing in the offices of composition instructors everywhere...
Performance metrics!

For a class: a comprehensive exam based on the learning objectives given as a pretest at the beginning of the semester and then again as a post-test after the semester is over.

For a degree program: placement rates and starting salaries of graduates.

For a college: aggregate success of degree programs by discipline (see above).

Hmmmmm sounds like "Outcome Based Education" to me!
I find myself really troubled by that Atlantic article. Why didn't Mrs. L get an assessment test before being put in English 102, for god's sake? Then someone other than the instructor could've told her that she was going to need to take the remedial classes first!

I have a very good friend in his late 30s, who started CC a couple of years ago. He hadn't been in a classroom since high school; was a grocery checker for years, then almost died from a health condition. Disability is paying for his schooling, so eventually he can do something more suited to his current health.

He's done pretty much all the remedial classes, starting with Math 60 and English 90, IIRC. And gradually gotten better, gotten more understanding, improved his study skills, etc., etc. He's probably never going to be a scholar, but his writing is better, and he can handle college-level math.

Now he's gotten up to the point where he can think about what he actually wants to DO with his education.

So like I say, I'm troubled by what happened to Mrs. L, and that it sounds like it's fairly typical of Professor X's institution(s).
Interesting article in the Atlantic Monthly, but this bit bugged the hell out of me:

"How I envy professors in other disciplines! How appealing seems the straightforwardness of their task! These are the properties of a cell membrane, kid. Memorize ’em, and be ready to spit ’em back at me. The biology teacher also enjoys the psychic ease of grading multiple-choice tests. Answers are right or wrong. The grades cannot be questioned. Quantifying the value of a piece of writing, however, is intensely subjective, and English teachers are burdened with discretion. "

Every time I hear from my English-teacher colleagues about how much work it is grading essays, I think of the pile of lab reports and essays waiting on my dining room table. I'm teaching the parts of a cell membrane as well as spelling, grammar, sentence structure, etc., but apparently choosing a multiple-choice test when the admin has timetabled my six-section exam 36 hours before final marks are due makes my task straightforward!
So here it was Final Exams week . . . the final exam for the capstone course was scheduled for Thursday at 1:00 pm.

Grades for graduating seniors were due, of course, Wednesday by noon so the registrar's office could verify graduating senior status.

"And So It Goes"

(I did mention that was the cpastone course [for graduating seniors], right?)

Oh By The Way, according to the faculty handbook I *must* schedule a "meaningful evaluation of student learning" duringhte final exam period . . .
I’ve sat here for about 30 minutes thinking of my past experiences and wondering if I should write something.
I stumbled across your blog via the link from the Science Blogs.

Regarding your second reason, an anecdote:

About 30 years ago I was in my 11th year of schooling. I don’t know how US high school compares to Australian high school. Effectively in those days up to 10th year was compulsory, 12th year was a university prerequisite and 11th year was a sort of preparation for 12th or a little more of 10th for those who would be higher skilled workers.

In my 11th year English class I had a teacher who was known for grading students about one grade lower than other teachers would. This teacher openly stated it to the class. On reflection I think the teacher was somehow proud or pleased that they did this. At the time I was a fairly thoughtless teenager and it never occurred to me that this was a problem, it was just the way it was.

As an aside, I also came to believe the teacher was especially hard on the boys in the class. This teacher was also the first one who I discovered said they would mark all essays based on the quality of the writer's arguments, but clearly marked up (or rather, less down!) those students who wrote essays that agreed with the teacher’s own views. Sadly not the last time I encountered this.

At the end of year 11 I was graded for English with a D. This was a below average pass. The school graded from A at the top to F at the bottom. Only E and F were real fails, but D was also seen to be an unacceptable performance. It would allow a student to progress with the subject in the next year, but sometimes with provisos. Employers would generally only accept people with a C or better, I am not even sure if they understood the nuances of the grading system as I think it might have been changing from year to year.
Somehow, and I don’t remember the circumstances, at the end of year 11 I found myself in the principal’s office discussing my options for the next year. I had vague ideas of joining the local railway company as an office worker (like my dad!) but my English grade was unacceptable to do this. I can’t remember why or what exactly lead to it but the principal took out a razor blade and scraped the D off my personal report card and wrote a C in its place. My personal copy would, of course, be the one I showed to prospective employers. As far as I know he didn’t change the school records. Even at the time it was an action that I knew was “wrong” and I hadn’t asked for it specifically, or at least this far off in time I can’t remember that I asked. Reading this post brings glimmers of those days back. At the time I never really thought about why he might do that, except in a shallow “to help me” kind of way. I wonder now if the principal was aware of the potential impact this teacher could have on individuals and was sort of “fixing” it in an underhand way.

The conclusion of the story is that I never went for a job at that time, I stayed and did year 12. But only 4 of the required 5 subjects I enrolled in (because I was a lazy sh*t and two of the subjects clashed) so I couldn’t qualify for university. English was not one of the five subjects I enrolled in for year 12, which was unusual for students of the time. This was part of the reason my year 12 subjects clashed too. I think there was only one other student in the whole town (three high schools) who didn’t do English as a year 12 subject and she went on to be the town’s highest scoring matriculant. I left school at the end of year 12 and went into an electrical trade as an apprentice and 10 years later enrolled at university as an adult entry. I completed my engineering degree over 6 years while still working, 2 years longer than the normal 4 years full time study and graduated with “Honours” (ie average of 85% or better for the whole degree). None of this history I regret. I really think I was probably too immature to go to uni straight after high school and the 10 years of hands on work in my engineering field makes me technically more competent than many of my current peers (that shouldn’t sound too hubristic though, I am some years behind them in management experience, but that suits me anyway).

Was I as bad at “English” as I was lead to believe in those end/early post high school days? Looking back on it, probably not. I wasn’t a star student and was never going to be, but I was probably OK and probably could have done the work to an acceptable level, if I wanted.

So did that teacher affect my life? Not really, my bent was always to the “sciencey” side, I never missed not doing English. Ten years later, even without the prerequisite high school English, I had no trouble at all with the low level uni English subjects in my engineering degree. We had to do a number of “General Education Subjects” to make us more well rounded individuals (why don’t language types do maths and science to make them more “well rounded”? :-) ). These were compulsory and were often first year English/Geography/Business subjects.

Did that teacher affect other students? This is a far harder question. I don’t know for sure. Any of the other students who went on to year 12 with a different teacher would not have been penalised for their ultimate entry into uni. But there is a definite possibility that those leaving from year 11 into employment, who were in the marginal area that I was, could have been turned down in preference to others with similar abilities who had different teachers. Maybe that weighed on the mind of others in the school system too.

That was nearly 30 years ago and I expect measures are in place to sort this out now, but really, I wouldn’t know. This isn’t a rant, just a reflection of things past.
In other places in the blogosphere, I've seen people saying that the Atlantic article demonstrates how poor American high schools are, and how some people just shouldn't be in college.

If Professor X wanted to show that, he picked the wrong example. Poor Ms. L had never used a computer. She didn't know to click a link. She struggled with the text editor: "Sentences broke off in the middle of a line and resumed on the next one, with the first word inappropriately capitalized. There was some wavering between single- and double-spacing."

This has nothing to do with her high school preparation. Of course she didn't learn to use a computer when she was in high school. She's in her forties, for heaven's sake. She went to high school in the eighties. This poor woman needed a course in computer literacy before she took a course in English composition.

It might be hard to learn to write a research paper, but it isn't hard to learn to navigate on the net and use a text editor. There are thousands of highly paid engineers in Silicon Valley attempting to make those tasks easy. Everyone else Ms. L's age who uses the Net learned to do it after they graduated from high school. So could she.

Ms. L also had trouble with the subject matter of the course. Maybe, after learning to use the computer, she would still struggle to comprehend the difference between a historical controversy and a political controversy. But we don't know that. The computer was her hurdle. If she'd gotten beyond that, she could have used her mental energy learning the subject matter of the course.

Like Former CC, I don't understand why Professor X's college doesn't use placement tests.
My SLAC has plenty of people who should be in remedial courses, but we don't offer them. All our students take ENG 101 and ENG 102, whether or not they can write a sentence (they may have to take 101 several times). We're dreadfully expensive, and the administration has a real problem with admitting we aren't admitting the best and the brightest. We aren't. I regularly fail 20-30% of my survey classes. Some is non-attendance, but much is not doing the work or sadly, not being able to do the work.
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