Sunday, October 23, 2016
Ask the Administrator: What If They Decide Wrong?
Personally, I would question their assessment skills if the placement that was used was "disastrous" in the view of the faculty as well as the administration. I'd like to know more about that observation before offering any objective advice. What data are behind the cut scores they chose? Is it that 100% will pass the first college-level class if they pass the placement test or the exit exam? That would be nonsense. What I'd suggest is a trial where they are given the placement test and the exit test, but placed based on HS math grades. Collect data and learn.
BTW, since Dean Reed mentions Florida, it is probably not widely known that students do NOT have to pass College Algebra unless they are in a curriculum that requires higher math like calculus for business majors, statistics, trig, or real calculus. They don't even have to pass Intermediate Algebra as a gateway unless they need to take College Algebra or Statistics for the reasons noted above. Many majors require nothing more than courses called Liberal Arts Math that most HS grads can pass. That alone eliminates lots of "success" problems.
I disagree with CCPhysicist about "high-stakes tests like the one proposed are unlikely to be useful as a check on overly easy teaching unless there is a reasonable expectation that a "C" student will have a median of 90% on that test." A pass/fail test should have the difficulty of the questions set so that the pass/fail level is around 50%, so that random fluctuations are less likely to push a person over the line. A test on which 90% is the passing level leaves no room for careless mistakes like bubbling errors or misreading a sign.
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When you asked them what their goals are, what did they say? What have they tried in the past to achieve these goals? Why/how didn't those plans work, and why do they think this one will?
Talking to the people who enacted this might yield useful insight which could be used to try and address the needs of all the parties involved.
I meant that C students would have a 90% chance of passing (and all A and B students would pass). The pass/fail cut should probably be around 50%, for the reasons you state. I was addressing the level of the problems, so that 90% of the C students will get more than half correct.
I also think that the placement cut score (used to place students into the next class) probably has to be lower than that, matching what those C students would get on the same test a month later when the enroll in the next class. Giving a "placement test" on the first day of class might be a way to correlate performance on that test with what they show they can learn in the next class.
I suspect they see this the same way.
My preferred solution is a good placement exam. (Obviously, I have no idea whether this one was good or the disaster your correspondent says.) Students who take the extra term our placement exam recommends often turn out to be our best students the next term. And classroom discussions become possible and valuable when the students in the room are at comparable levels. I'd suggest that this, and not just laziness, is a large part of why the math faculty may have this preference.
The other traditional solution, which you seem to be endorsing in your discussion of Florida, is to accept everyone but then insist on teaching to the top half of the students and accept that the majority will fail. I hate this, but it is certainly done in many places. But, if you do this, you need to promise the instructors they won't be judged on their pass rate!
Of course, I didn't really "get" algebra and just bumbled my way through somehow until I hit abstract algebra, at which point it all suddenly made sense because it didn't have so many numbers in it and I could just focus on really pulling things apart and understanding the underlying logical structure , so my brain may do math differently than other people.
I once advised a student who could not add two fractions that contained numbers, but could IMMEDIATELY add them if they involved symbols. (This was done face to face.) And do they have to add numerical fractions in college algebra? No. They use a graphing calculator that can also solve equations for them, the same one they used in all of their HS classes where they forgot how to do arithmetic.