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.