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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Are Students Getting Worse??

I hate to sound like an old fuddy-duddy on this topic, but I got something via e-mail yesterday that seemed to offer concrete evidence that, at least in calculus, today's students are worse than their counterparts 17 years ago. Professor Stephen Wilson of Johns Hopkins University gave his 1989 calculus test to his 2006 students. The full report can be found by following this link, but I'll try to give the 'highlights' here.
The course was Calculus 1 and the student population in 1989 was much the same as 2006. Professor Wilson notes the following similarities:

(1) SAT math scores : 662.6 in 1989 and 664.9 in 2006
(2) Class Size: 147 1989; 180 2006 both representing about 23% of the freshman class.
(3) Both classes took the same 77 point final exam

Here is a comparison of the raw scores on the exam:

Raw Scores (Yellow 1989-Red 2006)

A grade comparison is given below

Wilson goes on to give possible explanations for the discrepancy in grades:

It must be confronted that the 2006 students did not do as well as the
1989 students, no matter how one tries to explain it. An easy
explanation is to assume that this is the result of a slowly
degenerating mathematics professor. I am not inclined to look
favorably upon that explanation. Aside from my belief that I
get better at teaching every successive year, I received a
teaching award, The Johns Hopkins University Homewood
Student Council Award for Excellence in Teaching, in 2000-
closer to 2006 than 1989. My student course evaluations have
remained consistently high (although the results for this class
will not be available for months).
If the percentage of Arts and Sciences freshmen taking
Calculus had increased, then we might be encountering weaker
students who, in 1989, would not have taken Calculus at all.
Since the percentage in Calculus I is the same, this explanation
would require an increased percentage of freshmen taking
Calculus II. However, the corresponding fall semester
percentages for Calculus II are 11.1% for 1989 and 11.4%
for 2006.
I think it is unlikely that the phenomenon we are seeing is a result of
something happening at JHU once students arrive. I am inclined to
conclude that these 2006 students are not as well prepared as the
corresponding group was in 1989, despite there being many more
American high school graduates now and significantly more
competition to get into JHU today than ever before.

In the end, Wilson blames the decrease on the use of calculators for the SAT and also on an overall decline in math education in the US. Clearly this is but one study, but it's an interesting one and it would be nice to see this repeated across campuses. In my opinion, I am not so sure that students are less well educated now than in 1989 or 1979, but they do enter college with a different set of skills and expectations.


Joe Meert


At 4:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back in my day, we didn't have no calculators, hell, we were lucky if we had all our own fingers to count on.

Though I only have anecdotal evidence, the kids these days in many ways make me feel stupid (or at least unsophisticated).

At 11:03 AM, Blogger Loey in SC said...

I also teach college freshmen, and would contribute an alternative reason for the decline. Students today take less responsibility for themselves. They do less of the assigned reading, less homework, less studying. They are quicker to blame someone else or something for their lacking. It's no longer the occasional, embarrased "my dog ate it." Now it's a frequent "I couldn't make it print" or "My computer was down." Or "I had to take my friend... anywhere."
I have also noticed the handwriting of students is now frequently what we used to see in a 4th grade, rather than like an adult's. Letters are clumsily formed, and the overall appearance is childlike and awkward, rather than a fluid easy scrawl. Less practice, no doubt. These kids have so much soccer and softball, to the detriment of music or dance, and especially homework. Parents do not insist on accountability. Even my students, who were in the top 10% of their high school classes, are poor students compared with those from years ago.

At 4:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loey, you are exactly right when you said kids do not take responsibility and parents do not insist on accountability. I currently teach high school, and am currently seeking another option because of those two reasons. I recently caught a number of students cheating on an assignment; I received a nasty email from one parent and a phone call from another insisting that I take "another look" at their childrens' paper. I have both the students' reports and copies of the websites they copied from, but these parents are insisting that their children are innocent. Growing up in households where parents do not discipline their children and do not allow the school to discipline their child, breeds this sort of hierarchy of student over teacher. I know parents that would rather keep their child home from school rather than let them go to school to serve an ISS (in-school suspension). Education has gotten out of hand...actually it has switched hands...from the school and administrators hands to the parent and students hands.
I have also gotten in trouble for kicking a kid out of my room for refusing to read in class. Everyone in my class was taking turns reading and this student flat-out refused! I told him that if he was not going to participate, he could leave. When I spoke with his Dean, I was told that he "couldn't read that well and should not be forced to read." The student was in 10th grade!!! Obviously he was never forced to read, and that is why he is now in 10th grade and can't read! When is this absurdity going to end?


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