Letters to the Editor: Assessment and DWF

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     A free and open press is essential to a functional democracy because it helps open spaces for the public discussion of ideas, issues, and concerns. Academia has for a long time been the primary site for generating new ideas, exploring new perspectives, and analyzing social practices. School newspapers, then, hold a unique place in the dissemination of ideas and knowledge.

     The recent Stallion article, from Feb. 12, 2019, has raised awareness and ongoing interest on the topic of grade distribution and student success. The contemporary relevance of the article is enhanced by recent reports of grade inflation in high schools and colleges and by the connection, especially in Georgia, between student grade point average and financial aid. But this is not a new topic or concern. The purpose and point of grades and grading has been debated for centuries.

     However, taking assessment out of the appropriate context may lead to further misunderstanding or false conclusions. The article on “Making the grade” is a good example of taking the assessment of learning out of appropriate context. DFW rates are only one metric that faculty and administrators use to assess learning. The assessment of learning and assessment for learning are essential for institutions of education at any level.

     At Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, assessment in the classroom is an ongoing process aimed at improving student understanding of material presented and to document and explain student performance. Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College and all responsible academic institutions desire to improve student learning by improving academic courses and academic programs. The broader question is how well our students are learning what we want them to know as we teach them and how well they perform once they graduate from ABAC.

     The article, as presented, is incomplete. It does not represent student success, student achievement, faculty effort or instructional quality in a holistic manner. For example, the DFW rate includes not only students who fail after attending all classes and completing all assignments, which is rare, but those students who miss over two weeks or more of class time or who simply quit coming to class altogether. It also includes students who withdraw from the class before midterm of the semester.

     In addition, the results presented are based on only one semester, and without having reference points any conclusions one might reach do not have any validity and are not credible. Some conclusions are not supported by the facts and implying faculty incompetence based on a course’s DFW rate ignores numerous contributing factors, which should be used with the necessary research methodology for fully understanding student performance. Well-designed research studies have failed to associate or link a course’s DFW rate to faculty preparation alone.

      As you might expect, intelligent and thoughtful people have come to diverse conclusions about the purpose of grades. Many have argued that if the point of education is to learn (rather than compete), why have grades at all?

     Others have argued that grades are necessary to indicate proficiency and aptitude: for college, graduate school and employment. Recently, a synthesis of sorts has been adopted by many educational theorists and instructors which supposes that teachers, professors and instructors should assess student competence, not merely at the end of the semester, but also along the way. These two types of assessment are commonly called the assessment of learning and assessment for learning. Ongoing assessment for learning allows the student and teacher to know how close the student has come to reaching the learning objective –and to allow them both to work together to clear up misconceptions. This iterative teaching style allows for improved student learning.

     There seems to be broad (though not universal) agreement that ongoing assessment is as good for pedagogy as it is for organizational processes, but there are still many ways that instructors might implement ongoing assessment—and these often relate back to a philosophy of grading. Some instructors hold the view that if the student reaches the goal with proficiency, they get an A. This view holds that whether the student reaches proficiency on the first attempt with no help, or on the third attempt after help, they have reached proficiency and deserve an A.

     Others take a different approach and reserve A’s for excellence rather than proficiency. This view values performance over proficiency. It is likely that so long as we have academic freedom, instructors will situate themselves at various places along a continuum between grading for proficiency and grading for performance. Because of this, and myriad other factors that lie beyond the scope of this editorial, any attempt to assess the quality of teaching or the quantity or quality of learning that occurs in a classroom cannot be based merely on DWF rates.

     Each semester, ABAC administrators monitor our DFW rates for core courses and have watched our statistics improve due to our attention to these “gateway” courses. We have a dedicated Center for Teaching and Learning, which focuses on teaching excellence, running workshops for faculty and a mentoring program for new faculty.

     The ABAC English department’s First Year Writing Committee has worked on assessing first-year English courses and, as a result, our pass rates are higher than the national average. Our Political Science faculty worked with the Center for Teaching and Learning to put lectures online and noticed a sharp increase in pass rates—this has led to ABAC presenting at national conferences about our lowered DFW rates. In fact, our Center for Teaching and Learning won a national grant and has worked with sister schools in the state to create a One Button Studio like the one housed in the Baldwin Library.

     This past fall, our Biology faculty began following this model, compiling their video lectures to make them available for students. The Math department has been working with both our Center for Teaching and Learning and our IT department on an extremely innovative pilot program involving tablets in the classroom.  ABAC may be a small school, but we have gained national attention for our commitment to teaching. We call ourselves a teaching institution because we take teaching seriously. The administration, faculty, students and stakeholders at ABAC are all interested in the quality of teaching and learning.

     The general sense is that ABAC does a fine job: students leave here, get good jobs, get positive reports from their employers, and those who choose to go to graduate school are very competitive. We all have a vested interest in ensuring that we continue to monitor and assess the quality of education at ABAC so that we can ensure ongoing and continued improvement and excellence.

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