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.