Failure and Withdrawal Rate in Cal State Schools is a Red Flag

Failure and Withdrawal Rate in Cal State Schools is a Red Flag

Who Should We Blame For the Dismal Results? 

Having taught in the California State University (CSU) System for about 30 years, I was dismayed to read of the high rate of failure and withdrawal rates from courses at system schools and low graduation rates. The high rates are particularly prevalent in chemistry, calculus, English and U.S. history, prompting calls for systemwide reform. This makes sense because almost 50 percent of the students fall into the category. The failure/withdrawal rates cited by EdSource are below for the period 2018-2021.  The first set of numbers is from Sacramento State. The second is Cal State, LA. The last is for Fresno State. Of particular note is those courses with a 4o-percent or higher failure/withdrawal rate. At Sacramento State this includes Design, Physics, and Computer Science, admittedly difficult subjects to master. At Cal State, LA it is English and Math, which is particularly concerning because the U.S. lags behind many countries in their achievement scores in these areas as explained below. Lastly, all of the courses listed at Fresno State are above the 40-percent marker. 

Examples of Universities Failure/Withdrawal Rates

Sacramento State's  highest failure and withdrawal rates, 2018-2021

Department

Course

Course Description

Failure/Withdrawal

Design

GPHD 10

Intro To Digital Design

45.9%

 

Physics

PHYS 135

Electricity And Magnetism

44.8%

 

Computer Science

CSC 140

Adv Algorithm Dsgn+Analy

44.4%

 

Philosophy

PHIL 60

Deductive Logic I

38.4%

 

Philosophy

PHIL 61

Inductive Logic I

37.1%

 

Anthropology

ANTH 15

World Prehistory

35.4%

 

Chemistry

CHEM 5

Chemistry for Nurses

35.3%

 

Computer Science

CSC 151

Compiler Construction

35.2%

 

Letters & Arts

ALS 151

The Studio: Exploring in A & L

34.4%

 

English

ENGL 145I

John Milton

34.4%

 

Economics

ECON 138

Monetary and Fiscal Policy

34.2%

 

 

Cal State L.A.'s highest failure and withdrawal rates, 2018-2021

Department

Course

Course Description

Failure/Withdrawal

English

ENGL 1004

Intro to College Writing

48.9%

 

Math

MATH 3450

Foundations of Math II: Reasoning

41.7%

 

Math

MATH 4550

Modern Algebra I

41.1%

 

Modern Languages & Literature

JAPN 1001

Elementary Japanese I

38.9%

 

Math

MATH 4700

Numerical Analysis I

38.3%

 

Math

MATH 4720

Linear Optimization

37.7%

 

Physics & Astronomy

ASTR 3601

Ancient/Modern Views of Universe

36.5%

 

Modern Languages & Literature

JAPN 1002

Elementary Japanese II

36.5%

 

Math

MATH 1086

Discrete Mathematical Models

36.3%

 

Math

MATH 1082

Precalculus

35.9%

 

Fresno State classes with highest failure and withdrawal rates, 2018-2021

Department

Course

Course Description

Failure/Withdrawal

Elect & Computer Engineering

ECE 124

Signal and Systems

49.7%

49.7%

Elect & Computer Engineering

ECE 155

Control Systems

46.6%

46.6%

Computer Science

CSCI 41

Intro to Data Structures

46.4%

46.4%

Africana Studies

AFRS 10

Intro to Africana Studies

44.0%

44.0%

Computer Science

CSCI 119

Intro to Finite Automata

43.5%

43.5%

Elect & Computer Engineering

ECE 71

Engineering Computations

41.8%

41.8%

Mathematics

MATH 3

College Algebra

41.3%

41.3%

Mathematics

MATH 11L

Elementary Statistics

41.0%

41.0%

Mathematics

MATH 76

Calculus II

40.4%

40.4%

Mathematics

MATH 111

Transition to Advanced Math

40.3%

40.3%

What is Being Done About It?

According to EdSource, challenging course material, ineffective teaching and unprepared or overwhelmed students contribute to the rise in high failure/withdrawal rates, experts say. Failures and repeated attempts to pass can add semesters to students’ time on campus because many of the courses are required for majors. Worse, failing a class can send students into a tailspin that leads to abandoning majors or dropping out altogether.

CSU Chancellor Joseph I. Castro had some success in improving graduation rates at Fresno State, where he previously was president. But that campus still shows 11% of all its courses with high failure statistics.

Since being named system chancellor in January, Castro has put a priority on reducing those high failure and dropout numbers at all CSU campuses, especially in required and introductory courses.

“It’s our goal to make sure that every student that we admit to the CSU has the full opportunity to succeed, to thrive. And it’s about providing the support necessary for them to do that,” Castro said.

Across the CSU system, officials say new efforts are aimed to help more students pass these courses. Courses are being redesigned, teaching improved, tutoring and supplemental instruction expanded – all to propel students to graduation. Among the successes, recent reform of mechanical engineering classes at Cal State Los Angeles cut failure and withdrawals in half, from 32% to 16%.

Increasing Graduation Rates

Officials say that getting more students to pass these classes is key to the university’s plan to significantly improve graduation rates across all campuses and ethnic groups by 2025. The so-called Graduation Initiative 2025 has shown progress since it began in 2015, but more is needed to meet its goals. Recent statistics show that 31% of all freshmen graduate in four years and 62% in six, compared with systemwide targets of 40% and 70%.

recent report by a Graduation Initiative advisory committee of faculty, staff and students urged the CSU trustees to push for improved pass rates, with an emphasis on helping Black, Latino and low-income students pass these targeted classes. The trustees are expected to discuss the issue next month or soon after.

Particularly in some science and math courses, Black and Latino students on average show significantly higher failure rates than white and Asian students. For example, at Sacramento State, the DFW rate in college algebra was 36% for Latino students, 33% for Black students, 23% for white students and 18% for Asian students.

Are the Results Improving?

At Cal State, L.A., in mechanical engineering, 32% of the students failed or withdrew in 2018. Then, the course was redesigned to focus more on mastery of skills than memorization. Students were offered more frequent tests with four chances to pass them. Most lectures were switched to online recordings while classes mainly became work sessions divided into groups by achievement levels. Extra tutoring was available.

As a result, officials say, the failure rate was cut in half by last fall while faculty insist material was not watered down. According to Professor Mathias Brieu, the failure rate was cut in half in the fall 2021 without watering down the material. The redesign of courses has mainly helped students who previously were close to a passing C but unable to reach it. The reworking “has completely changed the atmosphere and our relationships with the students,” Brieu said. “There is a real connection now.”

In the past, some professors wore high failure rates with pride, claiming them as a sign of rigor. But that attitude appears to have changed as more faculty try to improve their teaching methods, especially with more cultural sensitivity about learning patterns, high school preparation and personal connections with students to help more Black and Latino students.

Sacramento State has expanded supplemental instruction, which offers three or so extra hours of review and test preparation each week. Those sessions are led by paid, specially trained students who aced that course in the past. Thirty courses at Sacramento have had supplemental instruction, and that is expected to double to 60 in this upcoming academic year, according to Jordan. But participation in supplemental instruction is voluntary, and attendance is low.

Is the CSU Compromising Challenging Courses and Materials?

The graduation initiative “has created intense pressure to reduce failure rates so that students can graduate, and to reduce the impact of bottleneck classes,” warned a report issued last year by a committee of Fresno State’s Academic Senate. While the report showed no evidence that the recent initiative is causing grade inflation, the authors expressed concerns about a possible “lowering of academic standards and grade inflation.”

Steven Filling, former chair of the CSU’s systemwide Faculty Senate and an activist in the faculty union, said he has no reports of grade inflation but fears it could surface. Grade inflation is “a recipe for ultimate failure and a disservice to our students,” said Filling, an accounting professor at CSU Stanislaus.

Jeff Gold, the CSU system’s assistant vice chancellor for student success, denied there was any pressure to pump up grades. “That couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said.

He noted that the courses with the highest failure rates now tend to be clustered in the sciences and math, although U.S. history, which requires a lot of reading, has worrisome failure statistics too. Despite these efforts, different failure rates may persist among campuses and between humanities and science courses, according to Gold.  “Our goal is not to focus on absolute numbers, but rather to bring people into the fold about how they can improve curriculum, how they can improve the support of their students so that more of them are successful,” he said.

Program for International Student Assessment

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) administers an achievement test each year to assess the ranking of major countries in reading, math, and science. The 2018 results are not encouraging for the U.S. It ranks 25th in the overall mean results in these three categories, behind countries like Estonia, Slovenia, and Czechia, to name a few. Virtually all of the developed world have higher achievement rates. To say these results are troubling is an understatement.

 

Page-19_2018-PISA-scores

My Views

I fear the CSU is dumbing down the material to improve graduation rates. I have no evidence this is occurring; only thirty years of teaching experience in the system at four campuses. I also believe the watering down, including inflating grades, is not uniform throughout each campus. In my field -- Accounting -- the courses were rigorous and the grading tended to be the hardest of all subjects in the Business School. 

The underlying problem in university education today is many students are admitted without the basic skills to succeed in college work. There are a variety of reasons for it including compromising learning in high school where the diversity of the student body can lead to lowering the standards for all for passing classes and graduating. 

I also think many students do not have a strong work ethic. They may not be taught to do it at home or in K-12. A strong work ethic enhances one's capability to achieve more and more in high school and college courses and it creates a more serious approach to learning.

Students in K-12 also are affected by social media in that they spend way too much time on it each day rather than practicing reading and writing. They also see their peers on Instagram or in Tik Tok videos and that's who they admire, not a scientist or others who has developed important breakthroughs.

Perhaps most important is that students do not have good study skills. They don't seem to know how to read a passage, story, or research paper and figure out what are the most salient points. Once again, the advent of social media learning has contributed to this lack of skill. Still, it should be taught in K-12.

Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on September 16, 2021. Steve is the author of Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.

             

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