Sunday, October 23, 2016


Ask the Administrator: What If They Decide Wrong?

A longtime correspondent (and fellow administrator) writes:

Students at our community college struggle with math, a phenomenon common to many students, community college and otherwise. Recently, our math faculty completely revamped the curriculum and implemented a new placement test (the latter with disastrous results and the exam was pulled). Some of the parameters within the new curriculum are antithetical to student success. For example, in order to move from one 7-week class to the next, a student must pass an exit exam with a score of 70%. If she does not, she will earn a D or F in the course, regardless of her status prior to that test.

Faculty own the curriculum; that point is never questioned. However, what if the faculty decisions stand to do tremendous and potentially irreversible harm to both students and the institution? If other faculty approve the curricular changes in the shared governance process, what are the reasonable options that can also avoid irreparable damage to the relationship between faculty and administration?

This one’s tricky, because both sides are partially right.  I think it comes down to different definitions of “student success,” as well as different accountabilities.  And it points to a fundamental issue of ownership.

From an institutional point of view -- the view an administrator is supposed to adopt -- student success means more students completing the program, graduating, and finding either jobs with decent salaries or relatively clean transfer to good four-year schools.  

From an individual instructor’s point of view, student success could mean students doing well in her class.  

In a perfect world, there’s no conflict between the two perspectives.  And on the high end, there isn’t; honors students, for example, tend to succeed in both courses and programs, and then tend to do well after that.  But on the lower-GPA end, the conflict becomes real.  For example, if you replace a two course developmental sequence with one course, this might happen:

Old system: 60% pass level one, some walk away, 60% pass level two, some walk away, you wind up with maybe 25 in college-level math.

New system: 50% pass the only level, some walk away, you end up with 35 in college-level math.

From an in-the-classroom perspective, the new system is an obvious failure; it went from 60 percent passing to 50 percent passing.  Why is the administration ignoring academic preparation?  What the hell do they think they’re doing?

But from an institutional perspective, the new system is a raging success; it went from 25 percent getting to college-level to 35 percent.  That’s a game-changing increase.  What are the faculty carping about?  What the hell do they think they’re doing?

From what I’ve heard from colleagues in Florida, that’s a pretty good approximation of what happened there when the state banned mandatory placement into developmental classes.  Pass rates in the first college-level class dropped, but more students got through it because more students got into it.  Whether that’s success or failure depends on your definition.

It sounds like you’re facing the clash between immediately visible, in-class success, and success over the sequence.  

The good news for you, I think, is that as the proposal makes its way through the governance process, you will have faculty from other departments weigh in.  They may be more amenable to the institutional-level view, since they don’t teach the math classes themselves.  If you argue from the perspective of helping the most students succeed, I’m guessing you’ll be on solid ground.

If that doesn’t work, you have some other options to minimize the damage.

One is a pilot or phase-in period.  The change being proposed is pretty radical, and the results speculative.  There’s a respectable argument based on prudence that would suggest starting small to see what the results are.  If they’re unexpectedly positive, then the conflict goes away and you can scale up.  If they’re what you think they’ll be, you will have restricted the damage to a smaller group.  Sometimes “less bad” is the best option on the table.

Alternately, you could move to a multi-factor placement system to reduce the number of students who need to take developmental classes in the first place.  (Think of this as the “soft” Florida option.)  Using multiple screens -- add high school GPA, say -- to filter students out of developmental classes may more than offset the losses from the proposed new system.  To the extent that multi-factor placement leads to greater accuracy, the more intense new system may actually benefit the much smaller number of students who would take it.  

The larger issue of “ownership” of curriculum is likely to come up more often in the next few years as various reform movements gain traction.  I’d prefer to replace a term like “ownership” with something closer to “first say” or “primacy,” just because there are too many variables to default to anything absolute.  If a state decides to ban developmental classes, can local faculty overrule it?  No.  If federal financial aid rules change and make an existing practice untenable, can local faculty choose to ignore the change?  No.  If a college lacks the money to support a new curriculum, can the faculty dictate it anyway?  No.  In a context of performance funding, with performance defined as credit accumulation and graduation, it’s ludicrous to prevent administrators from having a say in how to improve performance.  Like it or not, the artisanal model of production is not sustainable.  We’ll need to adjust the model.  

But that’s a larger issue.  In the short term, I’d focus on working with faculty in other departments, and having a discussion of multi-factor placement.  The longer term, well, will take longer.

Good luck!  I’ll be curious to see how this plays out.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a more elegant way around this dilemma?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Elegant? No. Subversive would be to enlist the faculty who will have fewer students in their history and humanities classes if there is an early pass-or-out math gateway that applies to the entire college. Policy would be to question the reliability of the metrics they plan to use, and point out that if we have learned anything form Some Children Left Further Behind it is that 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.

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 think that you are asking the wrong questions. Maximizing the number who go on to higher level classes is only a very crude proxy for maximizing what students learn. All too often pressure to increase pass rates just results in passing students who are unprepared for the next level of courses, which, after a delay, causes those courses to be watered down to teach what should have been learned in the prerequisite course. The result is a gradual downward spiral of the curriculum, so that an AS degree means no more than a high school degree did a decade or two earlier. (We've already been seeing this over the past 30 years.)

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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One thing that's missing here is the perspective of the faculty who made the change.

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 didn't write that very well, GSwoPumps.

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.
My immediate feeling, as a math professor (though not at a CC) is that your correspondent is setting the math dept up to fail. They will not be allowed to keep unprepared students out of the course, and then they will be punished for failing them.
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!
I'd love to see that placement test. One thing I see entirely too much with "math placement tests" is that they assume a certain hierarchy of skills and decide that everyone who, say, can't add fractions is also not going to know any algebra. This can lead to students who are missing a single skill or small group of skills (see also: fractions) being placed extremely far "below" college level math and expected to take a long list of catch-up courses rather than getting to just focus on the thing (for more information, see: fractions) that they somehow got through school without mastering thus far.

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.
Brilliant comment, Anonymous@7:18AM !


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.
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