Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Pass Rates

In a brief conversation with a professor on campus recently, I was reminded of a basic assumption gap. I made a reference to pass rates -- the percentage of students who achieve passing grades in any given semester -- and the efforts we’re making there. My assumption was that pass rates are scandalously low, and that we need to improve them. He concurred that there was a problem with pass rates, but defined the problem differently. To him, the issue was that our pass rates are much too high. We need to get tougher, he argued, so we wouldn’t have so many weak performers in second-year classes.


I remember holding that perspective in my first few years on faculty. Looking at student papers that ranged from ‘meh’ to ‘so bad that they warped the very fabric of space-time by the sheer force of their suckitude,’ I sometimes wondered about the folks who had allowed them to pass this far. I recalled a conversation with a muckety-muck at Proprietary U who mused aloud about how to increase graduation rates: I had responded with a curt “stop advertising on the Jerry Springer show and get us better students.” So I couldn’t deny knowing what he meant.

Properly understood, though, I don’t think these two perspectives are necessarily in conflict.

If you understand student capabilities as given and fixed, then the two perspectives have to clash. If students will simply do what they do, then the only question is how high or low to set the bar. In that model, there’s a direct and inverse relationship between academic rigor and pass rates. The only way to raise pass rates in that model is to lower standards. If you buy this view of things, then lower-tier schools are doomed to an eternal struggle between the soulless bean-counting bureaucrats who would favor a fog-the-mirror test for graduation, and the heroic but tragic figures on the faculty who are consigned to a rearguard battle on behalf of excellence and truth and yadda yadda yadda.

In other words, it’s crap.

If you assume, though, that pass rates reflect more than just immutable underlying traits of given students, then the ‘tragic conflict’ model becomes less convincing.

In the aggregate, I think the latter assumption is so clearly stronger that there almost isn’t an argument. But in a given semester, in a given class, it’s true that students tend to sort themselves pretty quickly. The improvements that mean something often take more than a single intervention or a single semester; by the time a given professor gets the newly-improved student, s/he can take that improvement as part of that student’s ‘given’ talents. Which, for all short-term practical purposes, is true.

For a college to try to improve its pass rates by lowering its standards will ultimately be self-defeating. Students rise, or fall, to meet expectations, and a devalued degree will be treated accordingly. The way to raise pass rates in an open-door institution is to arrange everything possible to help students help themselves, and to hold them to high standards. That’s beyond the purview of any one class, and properly so; that’s why taking talk of ‘pass rates’ personally can lead to some unproductive conclusions. It was just a little jarring to hear my older self spoken back to me so directly.

In my experience, students don't tend to make connections between the content of their coursework until much later in their education. So, a student in comp I won't use the information they demonstrate to the comp I prof in a paper for my philosophy class. Likewise, they won't take the philosophical context of a period of history into account when writing a paper for an art or humanities course.
BINGO, and not in a bad way.

The perspectives are not in conflict, unless you believe genes are destiny like He-who-shall-not-be-named. If you believe students are immutable, you have no business in the teaching profession. You might as well become an Ed Consultant and argue for giving out the diploma, BA, BS, or PhD after the first grade or simply based on your SAT ranking. The "Fee for Diploma" model.

I do have one suggestion. I know what you mean by "high standards", but there must be a better way to say it to convey the meaning of appropriately high standards for each course. Those are the standards that increase the odds that my new students will appear unusually talented, and leave even better than last year's group.

That might be the problem with "pass rates" as well, since it has that hidden baggage of adjusting the C- line to maintain "acceptable" fail rates in HS classes. Some other term, like "achievement" or "success" or "competence" (tied to outcome measurements) might be more positive.

At a CC, it starts at the developmental level but does not end there. My colleagues and I talk about the key concept of preparing them to succeed in the NEXT class almost every day.

The key problem is what ItPF identifies, but (just as you did in your blog) I don't take that behavior as a given. Don't say "won't". We have to plant that seed and water it a lot for it to take root. Talk to your comp friends, making them aware of your expectations and needs. Find out what other classes your students have had, and use that to make connections. When discussing something that might make a good paper for a different class, say so. "Any of you taking HUM2345 next semester? This idea is closely related to X. You could use this to write a paper on X next semester."
I wholly agree. I teach calculus, and I can tell you that unless exams are profoundly tough, students slack off until the day before and do the bare minimum of effort to pass.

In other words, if the exam is profoundly easy, usually about 60% of the students pass. If the exam is profoundly hard, usually about 60% of the students pass. The only way to improve education and to truly get what college is supposed to get across - how to work hard, how to learn on your own, etc - is to raise standards.

It's almost true, from my anecdotal experience, that if a math professor is getting averages HIGHER than 60-ish on their exams, they aren't doing their jobs. There's a sharp cutoff between professors like that and professors who get 90+ averages on their exams, and pass anyone who can sign their name. Not too many professors walk that fine line successfully. In math, at least.
I have had the same experience as AbsitFlux, student seem to adapt to whatever standards you set, and grades stay about the same. The key then is to identify what standards are necessary to pass the class and then hold the students to them.

I have taught at two rural CC, and have actually noticed that my enrollments went up in the classes (after 2-3 years) that I was more demanding in grading, and down in the classes that I had relaxed standards in.
I've had the opposite experience in a writing course.

I set very basic standards like expecting students to learn how NOT to plagiarize, how to do BASIC research, how to use Word Processing programs to set common margins/fonts/etc., how to craft a thesis statement and defend it with evidence.

I could have failed most of the class by semester's end. A few of them told me I expected too much. This was stuff I had learned in high school, yet I could have failed half of the students.

So, was I just a mean old, bad proffie? Or were they just incapable or unwilling to meet the standards set?

Sorry, bu the blame falls to the students for their own inability to learn the course material. They had me, a book, and any previous experience to fall back on (including Comp I and possibly II).

Some students do not want to rise to any level that requires work. So just saying "Solve the pass rates problem by setting high standards" is a hollow suggestion. Unless some miracle comes and changes the population's attitude toward education from a nuisance to a desire, pass rates will continue to dissatisfy most of us one way or another.
I love teaching the intro classes, but I definitely agree that a big part of what I'm teaching is, "Do you want to be in college?"

It's the intermediate weed-out courses which select for "Do you have the right kind of talent for this work?"

I've had many students of both types. Few students are so generally stupid that they couldn't pull out an Associate's with proper support, but they definitely do also exist.
If you didn't think I wrote enough in my comment up above, you can read even more on this subject on my blog.
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