Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Times Might be a'changin'

A professor on one of the professional online groups that I belong to caused something of an uproar yesterday. He teaches at a University generally located in the Southwest region of the US. His school is seriously entertaining changing college requirements for students.

Back when I was in college CUNY required 128 credits to receive a BA or BS degree. There were some colleges and universities that required 132 credits. There were a whole slew of required courses not in the major without which you could not graduate. There was virtually no way to negotiate your way out of taking the required courses, AP exams already existed, but they did not exempt you from courses the way they do today in many cases; they simply placed you into the next level of course. You still had to show the requisite number of credits in the required subject area. In addition, CUNY had a grade point minimum that had to be maintained or you could be de-registered and would not be eligible to receive a diploma. There were no formalized remedial classes in any of the subject areas.

Today the situation is quite different. Virtually every university and college finds itself giving remedial courses of one type or another to students they have already admitted. The skill level and knowledge level of many students who have been admitted to college falls far below that which was required back when I was in college. Yes, in a whole lot of cases we have seen a "dumbing down" of the college education process.

What did that professor report yesterday? His university may be going to tiered requirements for students. Those whose skill sets/knowledge sets won't meet the required minimum for admission to the "regular" college programs will be placed into a 5-year program instead of a 4-year program. They will be required to take a year of instruction specifically geared towards making up the deficits these students have in basic required subject matter and skills. If at the end of the year the students can show that they are now at "entering college" level, they will be allowed to continue in the regular 4-year programs. If they can't so demonstrate they will no longer be registered in the university. For these students there will be a 154 credit requirement to graduate with a degree.

The professor said that his university is considering this program because the caliber of many students entering college is sub-par. The university says that there are many reasons for this. One is that high schools are doing a lousy job of educating their students, particularly those who are looking to go on to college. For these students the college finds itself giving all kinds of remediation courses to cover material that should have been covered in high school while still attempting to have the students finish in 4 years. Another reason is that students in high school are being told that college is a "right" rather than a privilege and are not preparing themselves for success in college because they know they will get in anyway. A third reason was also given: there are many students who are ESL--English as a Second Language--who can't adequately perform in their classes because of English language problems in listening, speaking, understanding and writing. There are also EPL students--English as a Primary Language--whose families may speak another language at home or in social situations and again, they can't adequately perform in college because of language difficulties.

The university's possible solution to their problems is not all that radical except for one thing. Students who cannot make the grade in college because of deficits are now going to be paying for all that extra teaching the college's have to do--there is going to be another year of tuition those students will have to pay. There are those in the university who believe that the new requirements would not be "fair" to all students. Surprisingly, the teaching staff believes, for the most part, that it is a great idea. Me personally? I'd love to see this program at all colleges and universities, except perhaps the Ivies, which don't have the same problems that most other colleges do because of their more selective admission standards. I'd love to see college come back to being about being educated instead of being about grabbing a piece of paper with some letters on it.


Lion of Zion said...

first of all it's hard to say if students overall really aren't prepared anymore or just that larger parts of the population are attending college, which now includes less prepared students. (same debate about standardized test scrores, etc.).

this just sounds like to me like merging community college with regular college, which may or may not be a good thing.

interesting, because shortly after i graduated brooklyn college they *reduced* the required credits from 128 to 120. but the truth is that admissions at BC (and other CUNYs) started becoming considerably stricter at that time also.

"There are those in the university who believe that the new requirements would not be "fair" to all students."

why not fair, if it doesn't apply to all the students? (unless because prepared students will have to share classrooms with unrpepared students)

"there is going to be another year of tuition those students will have to pay"

this is an issue even in certain professional programs that have added a year to the standard program. my own program had added a 6th year before i started and now there is talk of 7th year. this would stink because it means another $35k for students in tuition, but i hope it goes through because it will make the employment market better for me if there is a gap year without graduates :)

Anonymous said...

I see no reason for one size fits all. Some kids might need 5 or 6 years for college and for others, 3 or 4. It is sad that some are coming out of high school without sufficient skills to make it in college and sadder that the financial burden of an additional year may make college unattainable or much more difficult. Hopefully some of those who need extra help or the remedial year can get it in an affordable fashion.

BTW, I don't think that a sense of entitlement to college is the major cause of this problem. I think that many kids don't understand or appreciate education and the life long impacts a college education and particularly a good college education will have on their lives. I know I didn't fully appreciate it at that age. It would be that much harder if I had come from a family without the right role models and even harder if I wasn't born here or if I had some learning disabilities or challenges. What is even sadder than the kids who aren't ready for college but at least are trying to get a college education are the kids who don't even aspire to college for whatever reasons, often because they have no role models or do not see it as attainable.

Anonymous said...

I think LOZ has a point about part of the perception may come from more and more students entering college since it is becoming as necessary as high school once was. There also is a growing divide because the good public schools in upper middle class school districts are producing so many superstars. The knowledge and skill level of many of those kids now come out of high school with far exceeds what it was few generations ago and all of them go to college.

David said...

I adjunct teach math courses in the NYC area. The students coming into my college aren't generally from low-income or disadvantaged areas. Their schools have 'solid' rankings from the state. And way too many of those students still can't manage to pass a general college intro to math class. It seems like they have memorized answers to tests but have not gotten the knowledge to apply the math.

My school has 17 different types of remedial courses in math for those who can't pass the basic placement tests or who fail or can't pass the required math class. It used to be that these were freebie courses--you paid the registration fee but didn't have to pay a per credit amount for the courses. You could be taking 4 remedial courses and pay nothing more than that registration fee. Starting in 2012 that won't be the case any more. Students will have to pay for the remedial courses the same tuition they pay for the regular courses.

It would be a lot cheaper for students if they could get that extra help on the high school level, which is free in the state. A lot of the students need to be better prepared to understand just what they can and can't get out of a college education, and they really need to learn before they get here that they are going to have to put in a lot of work and effort if they want a degree. It won't all just be handed to them because they gave the school some money.

tesyaa said...

Even at Barnard 25 years ago (yikes) there was a remedial math class that many young women had to take because of low scores on a screening test. I don't think there was an extra charge, but I also don't believe they got credits for it. What makes this crazy is that Barnard is a Seven Sisters school, supposedly roughly on par with the Ivy League schools.

Anonymous said...

I'll give my experience as someone who went to an Ivy and graduated with a BS degree in electrical engineering a few years ago.

We needed 129 credits to graduate. We had to take 4 calculus classes, 1 chemistry class, 3 physics classes (w/ calculus), and 16 electrical engineering courses. To even affiliate with the EE department you needed a B- or better in all intro courses in classes curved to a B- (so half the class fell below a B-). To amplify that point, in every class the curve was set to B-, so if you got the average grade on the exam, you got a B-. You needed to be a full standard deviation above the average grade to get an A-.

In addition, you had to take 2 first year writing seminars and 6 liberal arts courses. As an aside, I ask you who is more well-rounded? The electrical engineer taking 8 liberal arts courses or the liberal arts major who, even at this Ivy, only had to take 1 math and 1 science class and were allowed to take a class called "Why is the sky blue?"

In contrast, I took some classes a local state University with a good reputation and the differences couldn't be more stark. The engineering physics courses, for example, are taught without calculus and are barely on an AP level. Further, most courses are not graded on a curve and those that are have a VERY forgiving curve.

I think this extra year can be a good idea for those who would actually benefit from college. I don't think everyone is college material, so to speak, and just incurring more debt to get a job that doesn't pay more than one could get without college is foolish.

That said, I think our elementary and high school educational systems in this country are woefully behind other countries. Electrical engineering attracts many foreign-born students and I can assure you that they are far more better prepared for our elite educational institutions than we are. They not only have learned more and have a deeper understanding of the material prior to college, they have an incredible seriousness and maturity towards their studies. This is really something that needs to be addresses nationally if we are going to maintain our competitive edge.

I had a friend in college from India who once put it to me like this: We have over 1 billion people in India. Our top universities only take a couple thousand. And if you really want to go places, you have to get into an elite American University for a Masters or PhD. The American Universities only take the very best from India's best Universities. You know from an early age that being top 10% or even top 5% is just not going to cut it. You need to be better than that.

I'll spare you what a friend from South Korea told me they have to go through just to get into college (not getting in basically assures one of a life of poverty so people study from as early as kindergarten). See Wikipedia on Education in South Korea.

Think anyone in this country is thinking about that from a young age?

G6 said...

I've repeatedly had this discussion with many people (including the "BTL crowd").
College should be about getting the EDUCATION, not merely the DEGREE.

These pseudo-degrees and social promotions are getting so out of hand that they dilute the value of the actual degrees.

Before you know it you have people suing (and winning!!!) in court that they can't be excluded from firefighter training because they flunked the test due to the fact that they cannot read.

ProfK said...

I heard that on the car radio as I was driving this morning and I had to stop because I couldn't believe I'd heard correctly--firefighters who can't read. So they're going to be driving a fire engine at max speed with sirens blasting looking for a street whose sign they can't read. Right. What's next? Policemen who can't read? And if we go that far, can doctors and nurses and teachers who can't read be far behind.

Of course, we should also be kvetching about judges who can't think, and hand down decisions like this one.

JS said...

It's irresponsible to say that people were not hired because they couldn't read.

I suggest you READ the court's opinion before formulating an opinion on the matter. I highly doubt whatever report you heard in the paper or on the radio from some pundit accurately reflected the matter at hand.

Here's a link:

[T]he basic rule has always been that “discriminatory tests are impermissible unless shown, by professionally acceptable methods, to be predictive of or significantly correlated with important elements of work behavior which comprise or are relevant to the job or jobs for which candidates are being evaluated.” This rule operates as both a limitation and a license for employers: employers have been given explicit permission to use job related tests that have a disparate impact, but those tests must be “demonstrably a reasonable measure of job performance.”
In EEOC parlance, an exam that accurately predicts on-the-job performance is said to be “valid,” while an exam that does not is invalid.
After the exam items had been drafted, Dr. Cline asked a group of 12 firefighters and lieutenants to review the items and complete rating sheets as part of a Final Subject Matter Expert (“SME”) Review.
The SME reviewers generally reacted negatively. Ten of the 12 firefighters and lieutenants rated all of the items in the SJE component (i.e., over 50% of the items on the exam) as “Post-Entry-Level” or “Don’t Use.”
At the 6019 Hearing, Dr. Cline testified that she essentially ignored the SME Reviewers’ negative ratings and comments because she did not believe that the firefighters were qualified to judge the utility of the SJE items.

ProfK said...

The problem with taking things out of context is that they are out of context--gee duh. So yes, the entire brouhaha about the test is not only about reading but about the structure/usage/context of the questions and of the ranking scale used. However, it does have as one component the ability to read: The requirement that a test’s procedures be representative is intended “to prevent distorting effects that go beyond the inherent distortions present in any measuring instrument.” Id. In particular, “although all pencil and paper tests are dependent on reading, even if many aspects of the job are not, the reading level of the test should not be pointlessly high.” Id. Dr. Cline analyzed the reading level of Exam 6019 after this court’s July 2009 liability ruling, which criticized the unnecessarily high reading level of Exams 7029 and 2043. (See Readability Rep. (Def. Ex. A-7); D.I. Op., 637 F. Supp. 2d at 122-23). Dr. Cline compared Exam 6019 with the Probationary Firefighter’s Manual that the FDNY uses at its Fire Academy. (Readability Rep.) According to Dr. Cline, the median reading grade level for Exam 6019 is 7.7, while the median reading level of the Manual is 10.0. (Id.) This analysis sufficiently demonstrates that the reading level of Exam 6019 is not too high. See D.I. Op., 637 F. Supp. 2d at 123 (reading level of written test questions “should be below the reading level of material Firefighters may be given to read at the Fire Academy”).

Pointlessly high? The case file clearly states: "The City administered Exam 6019 on January 20, 2007. (Pl. Ex. 1.) Approximately 21,983 candidates completed the exam, and 21,235 candidates passed." Since the vast majority at least passed the exam, it should not be able to be claimed that the test was "reading biased," although that is one of the claims. How well everyone passed, their scores between the 70 that is passing and 100, is a different story.

And I marvel once again at the obfuscatory nature of legal documents in general and legal/political documents in particular.

JS said...

I don't want to beat a dead horse, but I'll take one more shot at this.

I'm not sure what your point is. Is it that the plaintiffs alleged the reading level of the exam was too high? Yes, they did allege that. Any good lawyer would have since you are allowed to (and a good lawyer will) frame your arguments in the alternative. In other words: The reading level of the test was too high and if it wasn't too high then the test favored Whites as evidenced by the overall passage rate and if it didn't favor Whites in the overall passage rate then it favored them in the implementation of the rank-order system..etc.

The judge dismissed the issue of reading level and determined, "This analysis sufficiently demonstrates that the reading level of Exam 6019 is not too high."

Thus, it is simply wrong to assert "...firefighters who can't read. So they're going to be driving a fire engine at max speed with sirens blasting looking for a street whose sign they can't read."

This wasn't the problem with the test and the fact that the plaintiff's lawyers argued this is meaningless.

The real issue (and the issue that the plaintiffs focused on and won on) was both the overall passage rate of the test AND the fact that the city uses a rank-order list. The city uses the test as an eligibility requirement to take further tests needed for acceptance as an entry-level fireman. For those who pass the test, they are ranked, with people at the top of the list being selected to move on. The city only hires about 150-300 firefighters at a time, so they only look at the top 1,000 on the rank-list.

Statistics were used to show that the overall passage rate and the rank-order selection rate of minorities were many standard of deviations below White applicants.

However, this is only a threshold issue. Showing disparate impact is not enough. You also need to show that the exam has is not predictive of or significantly correlated with important elements of work behavior.

As I pointed out above, the person who designed the test ignored the feedback received from actual firemen. The firemen thought the test wasn't good for entry-level positions and their opinion was ignored.

So, again, nothing to do with reading level.

It's like asking calculus questions on an entry exam for a sanitation worker. You'll get really smart sanitation workers undoubtedly, but in so doing you may be discriminating against certain protected classes on a basis that is unrelated to job performance as a sanitation worker.

Miami Al said...


In addition, a test may be predictive in a pass/fail capacity, but not in a rnak order (implied but not stated in your statement). One could devise a test where we see statistical correlation between a "passing" score of 70% and job success, but no further statistical correlation. Presumably, there would be some sliding scale where it is predictive, but perhaps over 70% can't be determinative.

In that case, you might find that the test is without bias, but using the test in rank order introduces a bias.

Tests generally have a range in which they are useful. For example, any test in which 2+ people score 100% is worthless for sorting them, as well as determining which people that got a 0 (or a 20%/25% on a 5/4 question multiple choice) are at the bottom.

On a 4 part multiple choice test, in all likelihood, candidates scoring 20%, 25%, 30%, 35% are all statistically zero, but we rarely care about the bottom, just the top.