Fail students and you’ll fail to keep your job

A U.S. prof is getting fired for failing nine of ten students


A Virginia professor is losing his job at Norfolk State University after failing students who did not meet his academic standards and defying pressure from administration to lower those standards.

Read the full story online from the Virginian-Pilot.

Biology professor Steven Aird handed down a D or F to between 83 and 95 per cent of the students in his seven classes. Yes, you read that correctly, 83 to 95 per cent of his students are getting a D or F not the typical A or B.

My first question upon reading this was “What is this professor doing wrong?” “Why is he failing so many students?” (I’ve never heard one of my fellow students say, “I failed the course”; it is always, “My prof failed me.”)

The professor claims that the difference between his marks and the marks of other professors is he doesn’t inflate his grades. Aird says that his firing points to the dumbing-down of his university, where professors are being pressured by the administration to pass undeserving students.

The article states the professor “performed a statistical analysis of two common exams that were given to all students taking the [first-year] biology course in the fall of 2005. The median grade in all sections on both exams — taught by five different professors — was F.” And yet, the majority of students passed the course anyways.

How is it that more than half the student body is failing their first-year biology exam and yet they don’t fail the course?

Aird says his marks reflect the students’ actual performance on the exams. It seems to me that he is actually doing his job: he’s marking students based on their actual ability.

Aird has been warned a number of times to raise his pass rate. He has been denied tenure twice over the issue. But he is unbending: “I really care about my students,” he told the Virginia-Pilot. “That’s why I refuse to lower the bar. The objective should be competence, not grades.”

If similar circumstances exist at other universities, the crisis in higher education is much worse than what anyone has stated. Instead of grade inflation smoothing out the bell curve, it has actually reached the point where it has completely inverted it.

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Fail students and you’ll fail to keep your job

  1. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the problems that occur when universities receive a good portion of their funding from the people they’re supposed to be training and grading.

    This is actually one of the strongest arguments I’ve seen for eliminating tuition completely rather than just providing needs based grants to fund tuition.

    I’m sure the free marketers will point out that stories like this will eventually lower the desirability of Norfolk State degrees and the system will sort itself out, but the key question to ask is how much damage will be done over the course of that “eventually”? We’re not talking toasters here, after all. We’re talking years of people’s lives invested in getting the education and significant risks taken by employers who trust that a degree means something.

  2. That is one way to look at the situation.

    However, the problem will remain. Universities will continue to be dependent upon students in order to receive money, the only difference being that the money will flow on a per student funding formula from the government.

    For the elimination of tuition to successfully solve the problem described here, it would have to be part of a package of reforms to enforce minimum standards in both high schools and universities.

    Good luck finding a politician willing to anger middle and upper class voters by keeping their unqualified children out of university.

    There are no simple solutions to the current undergraduate education crisis. I agree with you, the free market moves too slowly. On the flip side, government doesn’t move at all.

  3. Think,

    Your suggestion would work if we assumed that the government is disinterested in the graduation rates of students in university. But do you think a government would stand by if one of their universities suddenly started failing a majority of its students? If politicians are interested in promoting their provinces or their nation as having a well educated populace capable of competing in the world’s economy, they can’t have universities making that populace looking like dumbasses.

    Further, universities aren’t interested in failing their own students. Regardless of whether the money is coming from the government or directly from their students (and their families), the pressure put on them is to push out more graduates. Maintaining standards is not conducive to this.

    What may be surprising to some (though, really, it shouldn’t be) is that most professors, at the end of the day, don’t have an interest in maintaining or enforcing standards either. Giving students poor marks is correlated with getting poor course evaluations. Further, it leads to more complaining from students and, in some cases, brings you to the attention of the administration (and not in a positive way).

    Though I think many professors want to maintain a certain standard, at the end of the day, they will take being practical over taking a stand on principle.

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