Professor says they were told to fail fewer students

Georgia State professor, teaching students. | The Signal Archives

They said they were told by their department to limit drops, withdrawals and fails (DWF) to 12% or less. This professor, who spoke to The Signal on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, is a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Communication.

“Telling us not to give out Ds and Fs is a pressure to grade inflate,” they said. “Now you’re under pressure to give out grades people don’t deserve. And so the grades become meaningless.”

This professor alleged that this forces them to pass more students than they typically would because professors have more control over fails than they do over drops and withdraws. They claimed these directives from university officials result in inflated grades.

To corroborate their claims, the professor provided a document they said was distributed at a faculty meeting in April 2018. The document, which was reviewed by The Signal, displays grade distributions for each CAS department.

At the cross section of the Department of Communication and DWF, the number 11.30% is circled. Scribbled on that document is a note the professor said was printed onto the document before being handed to them: “Keep below 12%.”

However, when asked to comment on these allegations, the university said this practice isn’t used – according to College of Arts and Sciences Dean Sara Rosen, which is ostensibly in contradiction to the document obtained by The Signal.

“While we have not sent reports on [DWF] rates to faculty in recent years, we do track data on student learning and student success at all times,” Rosen said. “As we work with departments and faculty on success rates, we never advocate for lowering of standards, but rather for use of teaching methods that increase student learning.”

Rosen said that regardless of not having distributed the metric, DWF percentage is something that the CAS pays attention to and that by focusing on engaging students, the college can improve success rates.

The professor said that in response to the instructions at this particular meeting, other faculty pushed back as well. However, according to the professor, pushback is sometimes met with retaliation – specifically from Rosen.

“The implication is [that] the departments that do not play ball with the Dean’s office by keeping these metrics the way she wants them will be denied resources in the future,” the unnamed professor said. “It’s the Dean’s office that decides which department gets graduate student funding and how much.”

According to the professor, for tenured professors, complaining about the metrics directives is not a fireable offense, but their departments may not hire replacements when faculty quit or retire, leading to heavier workloads for the remaining faculty. Additionally, faculty who are employed on contract with the university simply may not be renewed in the following year if they challenge the Dena’s requests. It’s an effective termination of their employment with Georgia State.

The professor believes the pressure stems from the university leadership’s desire to increase student retention metrics, which includes speed toward degree, degree completion and retention. It’s no secret Georgia State has had huge success in their academic metrics and promotes these statistics to validate it’s student success rates.

“I think we need a leadership that is focused on the quality of the education and not just the metrics,” the professor said. “We need to prioritize the quality of the students’ education, the skill sets that they’re getting and not just how quickly they can finish.”

This notion of improving metrics over the quality of education isn’t at all unique to this professor’s claims. In fact, some have argued this view has permeated through higher education across the U.S.

One of these metrics is that Georgia State graduates more black students than any other institution in the U.S., something the professor commented on as well.

“We can be a minority-serving institution and still aim for excellence. I do not like the message I’ve received subtly that because we’re a minority-serving institution, we need to have lower standards,” they said. “If anything, because we’re minority-serving we need to have higher standards because our students are going to encounter discrimination in the workplace.”

The professor noted that Georgia State’s Senior Vice President for Student Success Tim Renick has been the most vocal about these success metrics.

When asked to comment on the document, Renick said that any distribution of DWF metrics are not by his instruction, nor was he part of CAS’s decision to use them. But he did provide some insight into the university’s position on any allegations, including that Georgia State has worked toward equitable grading across different sections and professors across a particular course.

This means that if a particular instructor assigns grades differently than others teaching the same course, “[It] is the responsibility of the department’s chair to look into the discrepancy and to determine whether the instructor is effectively teaching the material and grading by the same standards as are other instructors,” Renick said.

Renick also stressed the importance of tracking DWF rates, claiming that the university is justified and that nothing malicious is occuring.

“While some faculty members and students might think the monitoring of DWF rates is an attempt to inflate grades, there is no evidence that the tracking is being used in this way, nor is there evidence that grade inflation is occurring at Georgia State,” Renick said. “Moreover, there is good reason to track DWF rates to ensure effective instruction and fairness to students.”

Are any other professors in the Department of Communication aware of the issue? The responses were mixed.

Holley Wilkin, a professor of communications, said she hasn’t given the document much thought since the April meeting. Wilkin said she remembers the pushback the anonymous professor described, but she said she hasn’t felt pressure to inflate her grades, nor does she see how DWF rates are even in her control.

“It hasn’t affected how I approach my classes, or made me really think about changing,” Wilkin said. “I didn’t feel like I was being given a directive to suddenly inflate grades. Though I do kind of remember that the discussion was around that, that people felt like it might’ve been saying that.”

Some professors do view the DWF percentage as within their control, though instead as something to reduce by strengthening teaching methods and conducting personal meetings with students.

“If I think that students are struggling, it’s incumbent upon me to approach those students and try to help them as much as I think that I can,” Douglas Barthlow, a professor of journalism, said.

Barthlow sees the DWF rate and the document’s instruction not as a pressure to grade inflate, but as a caution that instructors cannot be passive about students’ progress. Barthlow said the rate for the entire department is a “ridiculous figure” to refer to.

“If the intent is to help students, then you don’t want to aggregate it on the departmental level. You want to get down to the individual course level and even the individual instructor level to find out what’s going on,” he said.

Rasha Ramzy, a professor of communications, couldn’t recall receiving the document, but she doesn’t think faculty need an instruction to tell them that they hope students don’t drop, withdraw from or fail classes.

“I think that’s generally because we want them to be successful students and to progress through their course of study to graduation,” Ramzy said. “So naturally, it would be something that we would hope isn’t very high.”

Jane Robbins is an expert in grade ethics and has frequently covered the various types of grade inflation in higher education. She shared her view on the events described by the anonymous professor.

To her, the idea of lumping DWF together – and not examining them by each letter – is counterintuitive to either combating or contributing to grade inflation.

“It could be designed to say, ‘Let’s keep students here so that we keep tuition, but let’s make sure that they pass,’” Robbins said.

Regardless, Robbins sees that this requires more detailed research and investigation and no conclusion can be drawn without looking into the various factors that play into grade inflation.

Average GPA has remained very constant since 2010, according to Georgia State’s data system, IPORT – a point Renick used to support his assertion that grade inflation isn’t a problem at Georgia State.

However, the Department of Communication has seen a general decline from 13.83% to 11.07% in DWF since 2010, although this percentage has moved up and down through this period. Furthermore, there has been a decline in the percent of students failing, showing that at the very least, the DWF rate isn’t entirely attributed to drops and withdrawals. In total, 1.57% fewer students are failing since 2010.