Sunday, April 13, 2008

Smoking Guns: Grade Inflation in Higher Ed Part V

By Nicholas Stix
June 26, 2001
Toogood Reports

“But many colleges have night classes so you could have worked and gone to college also pay for your education although some other programs to help pay on some where you don’t pay or some where you don’t pay at all so you were lazy.

The above passage was written in the late 1960s or early 1970s by a remedial student at the City University of New York’s (CUNY) City College campus. It appears in the book, Errors and Expectations, by Mina Shaughnessy.

Far from being a critic of remediation, Mina Shaughnessy, who served as the director of City College’s remediation program, was a boundlessly optimistic promoter of remediation. Since Shaughnessy’s tragic, premature death from kidney cancer in 1978, at the age of 54, CUNY’s ruling atheists have elevated her to sainthood.

The grade inflation debacle, like the remediation debate (which are often the same debate) has been hampered by abstractions. Neither remediation’s critics nor its supporters deal in concrete examples, because as tenured instructors, they are too lazy and arrogant to teach or research the matter, and too cowardly to confront the issue in all its ugliness. And the adjunct professors who have taught remedial classes, speak critically on the matter only at the price of being professionally “whitelisted.”

Like affirmative action, grade inflation and remediation have been reformed. And yet, like the killer android in the movie Terminator II, whenever they appear to have been destroyed, they simply change their respective forms, and come back as strong as ever. Consider the monster that is the 200,000-student-strong, CUNY system.

Circa 1915-1964, City College, CUNY’s original campus, had the toughest admissions and graduation standards of any undergraduate institution in the nation. During that period, the school graduated, among hundreds of titans, eight future Nobel laureates, former mayor Ed Koch, lyricist Ira Gershwin, novelist Bernard Malamud, and the current secretary of state. Thus, an employer or graduate school official reading the transcripts of a “City College boy” (the school then was all-male) knew that a “B” average was a real achievement.

In 1965, however, “City” began admitting black and Puerto Rican students who were allegedly “thisclose” to meeting City’s Olympian standards to its new remedial program, College Discovery. Except that the remedial students were functionally illiterate. In 1969, some of them took over campus buildings and, threatening race riots, demanded that the Board of Higher Education, which ran CUNY (it has since been renamed the CUNY Board of Trustees), eliminate all standards at the school, and admit unqualified black and Puerto Rican students in proportion to their representation in the city’s public schools. The board members collapsed like a house of cards in a breeze. In 1970, City College, and indeed, all of CUNY, adopted a policy of “open admissions,” whereby admission was guaranteed to every graduate of the city’s public schools. The system’s new academic requirement was the “mirror test”: If an applicant could fog up a mirror, he was in.

And so today, excepting certain academic islands in the stream, like the City College engineering program, an “A” average on a City College transcript is meaningless.

And what is true of today’s City College, is largely true of CUNY as a whole.

The academic standards of a school are determined by its admissions standards, because it is the students that make the school. The reigning myth regarding academic quality, holds that attracting “faculty stars” will make for a great school. But “stars” are the worst teachers, and do little teaching. Stars care only about money, publications, and the next endowed chair, teaching be damned.

Students make the school. Admit only potential rocket scientists, and there will be no need for grade inflation. Admit only potential janitors, and curriculum reform becomes an irrelevancy, grading an exercise in the surreal. In his paean to the City College that was, City on a Hill: Testing the American Dream at City College, journalist James Traub notes that in the school’s Golden Age, its faculty was mediocre, but that the overwhelmingly Jewish “student body represented perhaps the purest intellectual elite in the country.” And that student body, today’s racial socialist revisionists notwithstanding, was POORER than the black and Hispanic group that succeeded it. Today, by contrast, Traub offers up as a typical City College student Hernan Morales, a freshman “English major” who has never read a book.

And today, colleges are businesses. Thus, “retention” is everything; as long as a student has financial aid, loan money, or personal income with which to pay tuition, he will be retained. At many schools, it has become virtually impossible to flunk out.

Let’s see what sort of students are increasingly “making” our colleges.

In 1999, former CUNY City College adjunct professor Richard France gave an example from a student’s homework essay on the film, “Thrown from Blood.”

Plays today is so different then in the past, because time as change dramatically.

The paper was on Akira Kurosawa’s film, Throne of Blood. The student informed France “that she was an honors graduate of William Howard Taft High School in the Bronx.”

Note that Richard France was not teaching a remedial course. But then, why would an “honors graduate” need a remedial course? In any event, France was expected to pass all of his students.

In 1995, a student in my “college-level” course in Phonetics at CUNY’s Bronx Community College turned in the following, complete essay:

I am going to college, to learn a profession for my future, My major is computer science.

In this moments is difficult, to someone get a good job.

it is important. you go to school to learn, because you finish major. After that you get a good job, in Important company. they pay you a lot of money, do you could a position in the society and every do you Want. for that I am going to college.

CUNY’s Puerto Rican-separatist, Spanish-language (officiallly "bilingual") Hostos Community College, has a quaint tradition, whereby the English as a Second Language program distributes copies of final exam essay readings and questions to students two weeks before the exam, with professors explaining the questions at length in class. Many students then write their exam essays in advance, or job them out to English speakers. On exam day, students simply copy the pre-written essays into their examination “blue books,” while their proctor sits reading magazines. One proctor I knew, a tenured instructor, liked to read Ms. magazine, while her students cheated.

And even then, as Sue Dicker, then the director of ESL placement told me in 1996, 50 percent was considered a good passing rate for a class of students that had been “prepared.”

To give you an idea of how deep the roots of institutionalized cheating reach at Hostos, during the training in spring, 1996, in which the adjunct professors grading the ESL final exams had to develop a consensus as to what constituted a passing exam essay, we came across an essay whose author had answered the WRONG question. The exam sheet contained two alternative essay questions; the student had given the wrong instructions to the real essay-writer. No matter; the fellow leading the session said that we should give such an essay a passing grade. (Neither he nor anyone else present noted the obvious cheating involved.)

I once had a long conversation in the English Department office with a student (not my own) … in Spanish. The young woman couldn’t speak a word of English. She was in her seventh semester, on the taxpayer’s bill, at Hostos, a two-year school.

The head of ESL at the time, Frances Singh (a white American married to an Indian academic) “explained” to me, without irony, that our students had so many problems with English, “because many of them are illiterate in Spanish.” Singh, like her cronies at Hostos, was not disturbed by the practice of spending tens of millions of dollars yearly — billions yearly, counting all of CUNY — on students who have no business being anywhere near an institution of the higher learning.

In spring, 1997, someone blew the whistle on Hostos’ practice of not giving students CUNY’s dumbed-down, Writing Assessment Test (WAT), a system-wide requirement for graduation from CUNY’s community colleges. Instead, Hostos officials had administered their own, double-dumbed-down exam, the Hostos WAT, and had apparently given students Hostos’ traditional form of “test preparation.” When the truth came out, CUNY officials called off the graduations of some 140 Hostos students. The students immediately sued for their degrees.

(In May, 1997, Hostos Dean Luis Baez, lied to Daily News reporters Rafael A. Olmeda and Dave Saltonstall, insisting that “Some students got a hold of the test, and they were selling it. It happens in every college. At Harvard, the business school had a problem with that.”

Someone in Hostos’ administration also conjured up a memo, apparently for the sole purpose of leaking it to the press: “According to a memo obtained by The News, [Hostos administrators] blamed a “breach in security” for their decision: widespread allegations that some students had cheated by buying advance copies of the exam, known as the Hostos Writing Assessment Test, which gauges students’ ability to write a basic narrative essay. ‘Given that there has been serious evidence of security breaches in the administration of the HWAT . . . [administrators] have agreed to implement’ the new grading system, read the memo to faculty.

“School officials yesterday [May 21, 1997] downplayed the apparent cheating.”)

A group of Hostos students then took the CUNY WAT; 87.5 percent (91 out of 104) of them failed. The students insisted that they had received only “A”s and “B”s for their English class work.

And so, Hostos gave students intensive tutoring all that summer. The following fall, when the tutored students took the WAT — many for the second time — 95 percent (215 out of 226) failed!

The failing students were outraged at the wicked examination, and Hostos President Isaura Santiago resolved that the proficiency exam would no longer determine whether a student passed English. Rather, it would count for only 30 percent of a student’s grade in English. As Ying Chan reported in the May 21, 1997 Daily News, “Students blamed the English writing test for their failure to advance.

“‘You don’t pass that exam whether you know English or not,’ said Luz Brand, 34, a full-time student from the Dominican Republic. ‘That’s the only thing holding me back.

“Brand has failed the test three times; she said she understands English, but doesn’t speak or write it well.

“‘What we’re fighting for is that they don’t just count the one test — count the whole semester,’ she said.

Rather than summarily firing President Santiago for misconduct, in January, 1998, CUNY’s administrators asked her if she would resign in exchange for a $200,000 payoff; Santiago accepted.

Since Hostos has not been tainted by scandal since 1997, in lieu of news of reform, let alone indictments of school officials, I have concluded that the school got its “test preparation” procedures back in order.

But it gets worse. Although according to initial reports, only Hostos was violating CUNY policy by refusing to administer the CUNY WAT, it soon turned out that CUNY’s Bronx Community College, LaGuardia Community College, and with 30,000 students, the largest such campus, Borough of Manhattan Community College, had all been administering, for years, their own double-dumbed-down English exams. Likely thousands of illiterates had thus graduated with fraudulent degrees.

As Richard France revealed in 1999 (see Part IV), such institutionalized cheating has also long been the rule at City College’s Center for Worker Education.

Note that CUNY administrators have never taken any action to stop the institutionalized cheating at Hostos, City, or any other CUNY campus.

And yet, all the cheating in the world evidently can’t save CUNY’s students. The system’s seven community college campuses have a combined two-year graduation rate for the two-year, associate’s degree, of ONE PERCENT. And Hostos’ two-year graduation rate is .4 percent, meaning only FOUR OUT OF A THOUSAND students graduate in two years. However, on the bright side, 25.7 percent of CUNY’s community college students graduate with associate’s degrees ... AFTER SIX YEARS!

In response to years of withering criticism by the city’s tabloids, the Daily News and New York Post (a good deal of which was written pseudonymously by yours truly), that a CUNY degree is worthless, CUNY officials have for years been working on an Academic Certification Examination (ACE) to be given as a system-wide graduation requirement for the bachelor’s degree. In attesting that CUNY graduates have demonstrated academic rigor, the ACE is designed to restore the lost luster of CUNY’s degrees.

In 1996, I trained to be a “rater” on the ACE prototype then in use, which had been given to a few thousand CUNY students for research purposes.

The men who ran the weekend training sessions, a testing specialist from CUNY headquarters, and Marxist English professor George Otte, the chairman of CUNY’s Baruch College English Department, trained us to grade, er rate, the essay sections of the exam without regard to the testees’ literacy. Thus, one could be functionally illiterate, yet pass the essay parts, which comprised much of the exam.

Meanwhile, Hispanic separatist instructors from Hostos Community College have agitated for a Spanish-language ACE. And what about Cantonese, Arabic, Wolof, etc.?

An additional problem with the ACE was that raters were not given an answer key for rating the quantitative sections of the exam. Granted, the questions were on perhaps a sixth grade level, but in the Antiversity, one may take nothing for granted. One section required that one explain the differences between two graphs comparing the breakdown of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins in the average American’s diet in 1910 and 1960, respectively. One question asked for an explanation of the change in the percentage of fat — 12 percent in 1910, and 42 percent in 1960. Many students mistakenly answered that the percentage of fat had risen “30 percent.” Of seven faculty colleagues I queried, only one, an Indian chemistry professor, knew that “30 percent” (as opposed to “250 percent”) was an incorrect answer. The others had all rated the answer, “30 percent,” as correct.

Dumbing-down is evidently a two-way street.

Next column: Part Six: The Garden State

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