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2014 December 27

We create a problem when we pass the incompetent

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:55
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I finished my grading earlier this week, and I was little distressed at how many students did not pass my graduate bioinformatics class (19% of the students in the class did not pass this fall, about equally divided between the seniors and the first-year grads—note that “passing” for a grad student is B– or better, while for an undergrad is C or better). Some students were simply unprepared for the level of computer programming the course requires and were not able to get up to speed quickly enough.  They made substantial improvement during the quarter and should do fine next time around, particularly if they continue to practice their programming skills. Others have a history of failing courses and may or may not make the effort needed to develop their programming skills before their next attempt.

I don’t like to have students fail my courses (particularly not repeatedly, as some have done), but I can’t bring myself to pass students who have not come close to doing the required work. When I pass a student in a course, it means that I’m certifying that they are at least marginally competent in the skills that the course covers (most of my courses are about developing skills, not learning information).  I’ll give the students all the help and feedback I can to develop those skills, but I grade them on what they achieve, not on how much work they put in, what excuses they have, nor how many times they’ve attempted the course.

I often feel alone in holding the line on quality—I’m afraid that there are not enough faculty willing to fail students who don’t meet the requirements of the courses they are teaching.  Those teachers are just kicking the problem of inadequately prepared students on to the next teacher, or to the employer of the student who graduates without the skills a college graduate should have.

In The Academe Blog,  in the click-bait-named post Nude Adult Models, William Bennett, Common Core, Rotten Teachers, Apples, Robert Frost, Ulf Kirchdorfer wrote

The reality is that many teachers, whether prompted by supervisors or of their own volition, continue to pass students so that we have many that reach college with the most basic of literacy skills, in English, math, science, the foreign languages.

Tired of listening to some of my colleagues complain of college students being unable to write, I went to look at learning outcomes designed for students in secondary education, and sure enough, as I had suspected, even a junior high, or middle-school, student should be able to write a formulaic, basic five-paragraph theme.

Guess what. Many college students, even graduating ones, are unable to do so.

While I don’t often agree with Ulf (who often takes extreme positions just for the fun of argument), I have to agree with him that many of my students are not writing at what I would consider a college level for senior thesis proposals, even though they have had three prerequisite writing courses (including a tech writing course) as prerequisites to the senior thesis.  And it isn’t just writing coherent papers in English that is a problem, as evidenced by the failure rate in my bioinformatics course due to inadequate programming skills (despite several prerequisite programming courses).

In an article about Linda B. Nelson’s “spec” grading system, which attempts to fix some of the problems with current grading practices, she is quoted:

“Most students (today) have never failed at anything,” Nilson noted, since their generation grew up receiving inflated grades and trophies for mere participation in sports. “If they don’t fail now, they’re going to have a really hard life.”

It doesn’t do anyone any favors to pass students who do not meet the minimum competency expected—the students are deluded into thinking they are much more competent than they are (so that they don’t take the necessary actions to remediate their problems); future teachers are forced to either reteach what the students should already have learned (which means that the students who had the prerequisites get shortchanged) or lose a big chunk of the class; the university degree loses its value as a marker of competence; and employers ratchet up credentials needed for employment (as the degrees mean less, higher degrees are asked for).

There is pressure on faculty to raise pass rates and pass students who don’t have adequate preparation.  The University administration wants to increase the 4-year graduation rate while taking in more students from much weaker high schools. I worry that the administration is pushing for higher graduation rates without considering the problems caused by pressuring faculty to pass students who are not competent. The reputation of the university is based on the competence of its alumni—pumping out unqualified students would fairly quickly dissipate the university’s good name.

Four-year graduation is not very common in engineering fields—even good students who start with every advantage (like several AP courses in high school with good AP scores) have a hard time packing everything into 4 years. Minor changes to course schedules can throw off even the best-laid plans, so an extra quarter or two are completely routine occurrences. And that’s for the top students.  Students coming in with weak math preparation find it almost impossible to finish in 4 years, because they have to redo high school math (precalculus), causing delays in their starting physics and engineering classes. If they ever fail a course, they may end up a full year behind, because the tightening of instructional funding has resulted in many courses only being offered once a year.  There is a lot of pressure on faculty to pass kids who clearly are not meeting standards, so that their graduation is not delayed—as if the diploma was all that mattered, not the education it is supposed to represent.

There are things that administrators can do to reduce the pressure on faculty.  For example, they could stop pushing 4-year graduation rates, and pay more attention to the 5-year rates. The extra time would allow students with a weaker high school background to catch up.  (But our governor wants to reduce college to 3 years, which can only work if we either fail a lot of students or lower standards enormously—guess which he wants. Hint: he favors online education.) Students who need remedial work should be given extra support and extra time to get up to the level needed for college, not passed through college with only high school education.

Or they could stop admitting students to engineering programs who haven’t mastered high school math and high school English.  This could be difficult to do, as high school grades are so inflated that “A” really does mean “Average” now, and the standardized tests only cover the first two years of high school math and that superficially (my son, as a sixth grader, with no education in high school math, got a 720 on the SAT math section).  It is hard for admissions officers to tell whether a student is capable of college-level writing or college-level math if all the information they get is only checking 8th-grade-level performance.

Or administrators could encourage more transfer students from community colleges, where they may have taken several years to recover from inadequate high school education and get to the point where they can handle the proper expectations of college courses.  (That would help with the attrition due to freshman partying also.)

Or administrators could pay for enough tenured faculty to teach courses with high standards, without the pressure that untenured and contingent faculty feel to keep a high pass rate in order to get “good” teaching evaluations and retain their jobs.

Realistically, I don’t expect administrators to do any of those reasonable things, so it is up to the faculty to hold onto academic standards, despite pressure from administrators to raise the 4-year graduation rate.


  1. Oh, you hit a very sensitive point in my mind with your thoughts here: I often feel alone about that A grading inflation. We use a grading of (A: outstanding, B (very good), C (good), D, E (minimal level reached) and F (failed)). C really should mean ‘good’: solid, good work, and I to me ‘good’ is a positive/good grading. But there is a inflation of ‘B’s and even ‘A’s so students start to complain that they ‘only’ reached a ‘C’ grading. A’s really should be the absolute top notch (statistically maybe 10% of population). I don’t say that a statistical distribution applies to every class. But having a large number of samples really A grades should be in the 10-15% range max.
    I’m teaching in the 6th/7th (advanced) semester level, and I have to say that really some students should not have get here with the skills they have. As you write: my peers passed the incompetent ones :-(. Some of them are not incompetent, but they made it up to the upper semesters too easily/without failing. And then I get pressure from the administration along the line “you cannot fail them as they already made up to that point…”. Oh well, ….
    Things get even more complicated with exchange students. I had several US exchange students, and I was surprised how used they were to A and B grading: to me their skills and knowledge was at least one or more two grading levels below. I had long discussions with a good (see above) student who received a ‘C’ grading (which is ‘good’!), and he was very disappointed. I explained him the grading system, but still his point was that in the US he would get at least a B or even a A grading for what he accomplished. And this is what he received.
    And now here comes the interesting point: our administration then started to do a ‘grading scale transformation’ on all the grades for US exchange students: I have to submit the number of points and grade reached, and they will then use a formula to transform it into the US system (which has A-D?). Interesting for me to see that some see grading more about ‘meeting the students expectations’ instead of ‘meeting the learning goals’?
    To me, as in the non-teaching industry, wrong behaviour is caused by wrong goals: our administration main goal is to acquire as many students as possible (not to educate good (or even better) students): so every student in their view which does not pass through the system is not in their interest. And every student which is not ‘happy’ about the grading is not in their interest too, as they might talk to other potential students and tell them that elsewhere they can get better grades). Oh, what kind of short-sighted logic:-(

    Comment by Erich Styger — 2014 December 28 @ 00:29 | Reply

  2. Many educators in the USA do not accept the fact that
    25 million BA holders are underemployed during last 20 years that is 50 % of the total 50 million BA holders . If you do not identify the problem YOU NEVER SOLVE IT
    Solution :
    1.- Get 100 % pre schooling . It is a must by medical science .Brain construction .
    2.- Train 2-3 million K12 teachers online by courses developped by Stanford and similar education schools at least 1 hour per week + 20 hours in summer
    3.- Hire new teachers with MA degrees with dopble salaries
    4.- Develop curriculum nationally. There is COMMON CORE STANDARDS now it is good make it better .
    5.- Let teachers be assigned by State Education Boards not by the district .
    6.- If a student has less tha a score of SAT xxxx, never accept him to college .

    Comment by mgozaydin — 2014 December 28 @ 02:54 | Reply

    • mgozaydin, it does not appear that you are very familiar with the US education system—neither with the goals nor with the way it is managed. Your “solutions” do not seem to address the problems facing US education—for that matter, it isn’t clear what problems they would solve.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 December 28 @ 09:59 | Reply

      • I just put forward my solutions . Right or wrong .
        I have been investigating USA edudation policies for the last 20 years. I never claimed that I am right . My views are the views of an engineer, a problem solver . I am not educator. Therefore I can view the education from a different angle .

        Please you set your solution too so that DOE can find some ways around them .
        Write to Obama and Arne Duncan as well . I do .
        Sorry I have seen your remarks today .

        Comment by mgozaydin — 2014 December 30 @ 03:41 | Reply

  3. You say 20 % of your students failed .
    In Europe it is 50 % . Nobody complains .
    Then good ones go to college, bad ones go to vocational school and even be happier .
    Never pass your students if they are compenant. You ruin him .

    Comment by mgozaydin — 2014 December 28 @ 02:59 | Reply

  4. It was a revelation to me as I talked with a friend who teaches chemistry at a community college. She was saying how she has, on average, much stronger students in general chemistry than she did when she worked at a 4-year private school. The reason is that they have two levels of chemistry below gen chem that she and her colleagues can direct students to until they show they are ready for gen chem. At the private school, gen chem is the lowest and they let everyone in.

    I’ve also been surprised to see that the biggest change to the grades I report since switching to Standards-Based Grading is that I fail more students. Interestingly, those who fail under this system don’t complain as much as those under my older systems.

    Comment by Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist — 2014 December 28 @ 06:20 | Reply

    • This is one reason why I encourage more transfers from the community colleges—there is less social promotion in the community colleges than in California high schools, so more chance that the students actually have the skills that high school graduates should have. Also there is less of a problem with transfer students being just interested in the social life of college and ignoring academics, as too many of the students admitted as freshmen do.

      I have adopted some aspects of standards-based grading (like allowing/requiring students to redo work that is not up to snuff), but I decided that the package as a whole did not work well—the reductionist approach of finely divided “standards” does not work for the skills I want students to develop. I wrote about 10 posts on the topic a couple of years ago.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 December 28 @ 10:07 | Reply

  5. The incentives to faculty – from teaching evaluations, to graduation rates, etc – are all towards grade inflation and high pass rates. Until the incentives change, there is little hope that faculty behavior overall will change.

    Comment by Luca — 2014 December 28 @ 22:38 | Reply

    • I agree with changing the incentives as the primary solution.

      I believe I am fairly strict since I also teach the next course in a sequence. It is painful to get a student who obviously shouldn’t have passed the prerequisite. Unfortunately, this is really the main thing that keeps my passing standard high. All other incentives are opposite.

      Comment by Matt — 2014 December 29 @ 08:33 | Reply

    • Let’s not make faculty the (only) bad guys here. Department funding at my state school is proportional to enrollment, so too many underprepared students are let in; I see that clearly in the grade distributions becoming increasingly bimodal. You have one peak around 70-80%, which is the peak for the students who are supposed to be here. Then there’s another one at 30-40%. These students should not be majoring in this technical discipline at all. Yet, they are here, and they are numerous. On the other hand, 4-year-graduation rates are hammered as one of the most important metrics of success. Underprepared students are in complete opposition to speedy graduation. So when you are between the rock and the hard place, you do what you can — offer remedial instruction at the expense of prepared students not getting their money’s worth, lower criteria, fail the incompetent until the higher ups inevitably come down on you hard.

      It’s not fair to faculty (or teachers in K-12) to be responsible for everything in regards to the educational outcomes when they have very limited power over much of what they do. I would like to be able to tell a student — you are awfully unprepared for what lies ahead. Either take these remedial courses or switch majors. But I cannot say anything of the sort.

      I am perpetually frustrated that I am supposed to teach topics that require fluency with single-variable calculus, some ODEs, vector calculus, and some serious linear algebra (eigenvalue problems of matrices) to students who are not fluent in high-school algebra or god forbid trigonometry (not a soul has memorized the formula for the sine or cosine of the double angle).

      Comment by xykademiqz — 2014 December 29 @ 13:55 | Reply

  6. “Four-year graduation is not very common in engineering fields—even good students who start with every advantage (like several AP courses in high school with good AP scores) have a hard time packing everything into 4 years. Minor changes to course schedules can throw off even the best-laid plans, so an extra quarter or two are completely routine occurrences. ”

    Do you write here about UCSC in particular, the UCs in general, state schools across the nation, or all public and private universities? Is this anecdotal or is there evidence? This is truly concerning for parents paying tuition.

    Comment by V John — 2014 December 29 @ 12:57 | Reply

    • My experience has been primarily at UCSC, but I understand that all the UCs have much better 5-year than 4-year graduation rates, particularly in engineering fields. I’m not sure, but I think that the very expensive private schools (Stanford, MIT, …) have much higher 4-year graduation rates, because there is much more financial incentive to finish quickly, because they don’t accept as many students whose high school education is not adequate, and because they can afford to offer enough classroom seats that students don’t have the serious scheduling problem that affects public universities.

      When I started at UCSC, 4-year engineering degrees were the norm—the switch to 4 2/3 has occurred gradually, and has come about because of the greater difficulty students now have in getting into classes when they need them, and because of the greater number of students who need remedial work before they can handle university-level engineering courses.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 December 29 @ 14:35 | Reply

      • Stanford professors do not pass students easily at all .
        They do not need to.
        Stanford accepts only 5 % of the all applicanjts.
        That means best in the USA + best in thye World .
        I mean they have very very high SAT score .

        Comment by mgozaydin — 2014 December 29 @ 14:41 | Reply

        • I was a student at Stanford 30 years ago. Even then, Stanford suffered pretty badly from grade inflation, with “A is average, B is bad, C is catastrophic” grading. Stanford grades are pretty meaningless—the quality of their graduates depends almost entirely on the selectivity of their admissions policies.

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 December 29 @ 15:16 | Reply

          • So you agree with me that professors at Stanford do not pass their students easily .
            + Since they are good at the entrance they find good jobs after graduation too like you say .
            So we are 100 % agree . I was there 1960-1970 . I got only 2 Cs , I was about to faint .

            Comment by mgozaydin — 2014 December 30 @ 03:34 | Reply

  7. I got a private e-mail from an administrator today, which I decided to share (without attribution) with the readers of the blog:

    I just read your blog, and I largely agree, in that passing a course should reflect competence with the course material and outcomes.

    I did want to respond to some of your accusations of the administration. The push for improved four-year graduation rates is coming largely from the governor and the legislature, both of whom are trying to tie funding to such improvements. This is not a position the university supports. It would be great if you could help communicate to our state government why five-year graduations rates are important and sensible. Until then, we face strong political pressure to improve these rates. But no one in our administration thinks that we should change our quality standards to improve graduation rates. We need to improve student learning.

    The campus is trying to improve success for students with weaker preparation in math and English. Some our of colleges now offer a stretch core to improve success in writing. The math department is experimenting with ALEKS, a module-based approach that can help students focus on the particular skills they lack, rather than pushing everyone into the same basic math course.

    The campus is not specifically trying to take in more students from weaker high schools. UCSC is becoming more selective in admissions. However, the UC system looks to enroll the top 12.5% percent of graduating high school students, and state demographics may be resulting in changes that are reflected in admissions data.

    Right now, we basically accept all qualified community college transfer applications. We are turning away students who haven’t finished the pre-requisities for their majors, as they would have little chance of completing in two years.

    Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 December 29 @ 14:00 | Reply

    • UC system is doing the right thing . To enroll the top 12.5 % of the graduating high school students .

      Comment by mgozaydin — 2014 December 30 @ 14:31 | Reply

  8. One must to identify the source of a problem .
    Today the reason of the failure of USA HE is :
    1.- 65 % preschooling . Childrens brains can learn at age 3-4-5 at most . These learning would affect the whole future of the children . It is scientifically proven. We need to read on this alot . It must be 100 % like in EU .
    2.- Weak K12 education by less trained teachers .

    Comment by mgozaydin — 2014 December 30 @ 03:52 | Reply

    • The evidence in favor of or against pre-schooling is rather mixed, I believe. I think that some increase in preschool education will help those students whose parents don’t read to them or speak much with them, but for other students there would be little benefit.

      I’m also not sure that the weak education in K–12 is because of “less-trained teachers”. If anything, our teachers have too much “training” and not enough content knowledge or ability. Fixing that problem will be difficult, as US culture has a strong bias against teaching as a profession, so that those with the higher levels of content knowledge or ability often avoid the field, rather than being attracted to it, as happens in some other cultures.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 December 30 @ 09:26 | Reply

  9. “Or they could stop admitting students to engineering programs who haven’t mastered high school math and high school English.”

    Better yet, how about stop admitting them to any college program.

    Comment by Grace — 2014 December 30 @ 13:15 | Reply

    • I don’t know about that—business, education, and many humanities programs would collapse if they required their students to master high school math.

      Actually, I’d be willing to give up high school English for engineering students, as long as it was replaced by instruction in writing. I really don’t care whether students can do analysis of characters in literature, but I do want them to understand what paragraphs and topic sentences are, and to be able to create them in their own writing.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 December 30 @ 14:00 | Reply

    • Thanks Grace
      I have a very simple measure. Do not accept any body to any college if they have less than SAT score of xxxx. In Japan and Korea there is a national entrance exam.

      Comment by mgozaydin — 2014 December 30 @ 14:27 | Reply

  10. I have been trying really hard to find ways to flunk the truly incompetent without messing up the better students. I haven’t hit upon it yet. The problem is this: I have to give some points for things like labs, homework, and reading quizzes, because otherwise they won’t do the work at all. Yes, I know, I know, you will say, if they don’t read the book or do the labs they will just do poorly on the exams. But I can’t have the entire class flunking. Giving points for labs and quizzes gives an incentive to do the work that encourages many students to actually become competent, if not stellar.
    But the problem is, every semester I have a couple of students who amass enough points on the homeworks and labs to squeak through with a D even though it is painfully clear from the exams and programming projects that these students are utterly incompetent. This semester, I had a girl in a senior level capstone class who got through with a D, even though she badly failed her projects and tests. She could not write a single line of code on her own. How did she manage to get such high scores on her homeworks?? I am sure she was visiting the tutoring center frequently, and also that she was probably collaborating extensively with other people in the class. She did well on the reading quizzes because she was good at memorizing from the book.

    So I haven’t yet figured out how to weight things so that students who can benefit from small stakes assignments will do them, while ensuring that the truly incompetent fail the class. I think other faculty are having this problem too because I will often get students who are so lost that I can’t imagine how they passed the prereq, but they did.

    Comment by Bonnie — 2014 December 31 @ 12:52 | Reply

    • I don’t have high-stakes and low-stakes assignments. I make all assignments roughly equal weight, and all of them real assessments. For example, in my electronics class there are 10 labs (the meat of the course) and 1, 2, or 3 quizzes (whose duration is 70 minutes, so as long as a midterm). Each quiz has the same weight as a lab report. I’m in the lab as the students do them, and they have to demo the working designs to me, so there is no question of students cheating their way to a pass. I don’t give any points for reading, and I don’t give busywork exercises—instead I give lots of high-value assignments all quarter, under the assumption that the students who fail to prepare for the first few assignments will learn better by the middle of the quarter. I also allow students to redo assignments that they messed up (and require them to redo some), so that they can fix early mistakes rather than giving up.

      On our campus, anything lower than a C is failing (lower than B- for grad students), so a D is not squeaking through, but just missing.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 December 31 @ 15:43 | Reply

  11. This blog post may offer some explanation about the pressure to pass the incompetent:

    Comment by V John — 2015 January 27 @ 08:49 | Reply

    • I’d read that post when it first came out, but the parental pressure on high school teachers is not really present at the college level—my colleagues have no such excuses. If they feel pressured to up their average grades, the pressure is coming either from themselves or from administrators.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2015 January 27 @ 09:11 | Reply

  12. […] We create a problem when we pass the incompetent […]

    Pingback by Blog year 2015 in review | Gas station without pumps — 2015 December 31 @ 17:07 | Reply

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