Follow the F Grades

A community college examines courses with the highest failure rates, and changes a series of policies.
June 1, 2011

AUSTIN, TEX. -- In 2009, Brian Hayden attended a professional development program for Pittsburgh area community colleges at which Kay M. McClenney, director of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, offered an idea. She said that community colleges needed to take a look at the courses with the highest failure rates.

Hayden, director of institutional research at the Community College of Beaver County, decided to do just that. "I didn't realize what I was getting into," he recalled here Tuesday in a presentation at the annual meeting of the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. Hayden described the way the data -- which hadn't been previously examined at the college -- led to concrete changes to promote student success.

Because of a tie in the top 10, the college ended up looking at 11 courses, with failure rates of between 50 and 64 percent. The courses included remedial and college-level courses, in-person and online courses, and a range of disciplines. Hayden said that the first step was to share the data with the faculty, and he said that this immediately prompted an education process for administrators. Since faculty members had never been asked about high failure rates before, he said, administrators were unaware of patterns instructors had known about for years.

For instance, faculty members had a term for a certain kind of student -- "the cyber F." These students were registered for courses and were billed for tuition, but either never attended or attended only one or two sessions. These students never withdrew -- and simply received F grades for not doing any of the work.

The faculty developed several policies in the last two years in response to the failure data. One requires instructors to file a "certification of enrollment" report three weeks into a term, letting the administration know about no-show students, who then receive a notice of withdrawal. Further, faculty members develop a statement of "evidence of course pursuit" -- a combination of attendance, participation, work completed and so forth -- that indicates that a student is actively pursuing the course. Students who fail to show that evidence are also withdrawn. (The "pursuit" measure only applies to effort, not grades -- so a student who is showing up and taking tests, but failing them, would not be withdrawn for not pursuing the course.)

Hayden said that these policies are intended not to be punitive, but to promote discussion between instructors and students about how to stay eligible for the course, and between students and counselors. He said that a counselor recently told him about a call from a student who had been withdrawn from a course for not showing up. The student explained that she was still trying to figure out child care. The counselor talked about how to do that, why it was important to have child care set up by the time classes started, and how the student could get a tuition refund so she would have the money to start at the next semester.

Based on all available data, Hayden said, that student would almost certainly have failed the course, having started four or more weeks late, and would have been out her tuition money, with an F on her record. Instead, she got advice on how to enroll with a shot at success. "This is a conversation that never would have happened before," he said.

The college has also moved to establish, for the first time, academic probation and academic suspension policies (the former for being below a 2.0 grade-point average for a semester, and the latter for doing that three semesters in a row). The idea is to force discussions with students who are not doing well about how they can improve.

The faculty has just proposed yet another policy -- mandatory posting of midterm grades -- to make sure that all students know exactly how they are doing midway through a course.

In some cases, Hayden said, the college's analysis has led officials to believe that some courses were being offered in inappropriate formats. For instance, several of the highest failure rates were in online developmental courses (around 60 percent) -- and various reforms didn't budge those numbers. So the college has ended online remedial education. "The failure rates were so high that it seemed almost unethical to offer the option," Hayden said.

Most of the changes have involved policies, but Hayden said that in a few cases, deans changed teaching assignments. He said that one course with a high failure rate matched very low ratings by students of the instructor. The instructor had higher pass rates and higher evaluation scores in other courses, and now teaches only those classes. Hayden said that faculty leaders and administrators have watched the results to make sure that rigor is not being affected by the emphasis on these courses, and that there is no evidence of faculty members giving higher grades for reasons other than the grades having been earned.

The results have been dramatic in college-level courses. While 57 percent of students were failing statistics before the new policies, the failure rate is now 29 percent. Public speaking (which had been offered online, an option the college has dropped) saw its failure rate decline from 57 percent to 21 percent. The failure rate in college algebra went from 53 percent to 27 percent.

The Community College of Beaver County is a participant in Achieving the Dream, which is dedicated to using data to improve success rates at community colleges. And the emphasis on grades was accompanied by other policies, such as mandatory placement and an end to late registration.

Joe D. Forrester, president of the college, said that it is important for presidents "to share the data" but not to try to explain to faculty what they mean, or to impose an immediate solution to any problems identified by the data. He said that faculty members will come up with good policies, as they did at Beaver County, if data are shared in ways that are not accusatory and do not lead to micromanaging.

"The quickest way at a college to kill something is to have it be my agenda," said Forrester. "This is about going to the faculty with data and asking, 'What does this mean?' "

The Community College of Beaver County now calculates and shares the top failure rates each semester.


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