Since the 1960s academic achievement scores have plummeted but student grade point averages (GPAs) have skyrocketed. The Academy of Arts and Sciences reports that at Harvard, for instance, A's were awarded to 46 percent of students in 1996 (versus 22 percent in 1966) and 82 percent Harvard students graduate with honors. Nationally, only 10 to 20 percent of students at all colleges receive grades less than B minus. When college graduates are hired, many companies find they must hire English and math teachers to teach them how to write memos and perform simple computations.
The American Council on Education found that only 15 percent of universities require tests for general knowledge; only 17 percent for critical thinking; and only 19 percent for minimum competency. The National Commission for Excellence in Education found that few colleges required students to demonstrate "true proficiency in anything as a condition for receiving a degree, fewer still set clear learning objectives and unambiguous standards for academic performance . . . ." An article in the Wall Street Journal (1/30/97) reported that a "Bachelor of Arts degree in 1997 may not be the equal of a graduation certificate from an academic high school in 1947."
One naturally asks, "What's going on at our colleges? Aren't there professors with academic honesty and integrity?" There are a few; but honesty and integrity can impose a high cost. Philadelphia's Temple University math professor Dr. Martin Eisen went up against the tide and demanded standards. He paid the price; after 30 years at Temple, he was fired by President David Adamany. Why? Professor Eisen obstinately refused to lower standards. His lawsuit, in the Federal Eastern District Court, will be heard in July 2002 charging Temple University with academic fraud as well as violations of his academic freedom by administrators unilaterally changing student grades in his courses.
Professor Eisen convinced me of his argument about student preparation via an algebra pretest that he administers to students. Here are a sample of test problems: -10+4 = what, (-5)(6) = what, (2x+3)(5x-4) = what; solve for x in the following: 7x=28, x+7=13, and 2x-3=15. These are math problems that a junior high student should be able to solve. In Professor Eisen's 1999 freshman class of 44 students, only 18 were able to pass the arithmetic portion and none passed the algebra portion of the pretest.
One of Professor Eisen's colleagues said, wishing to remain anonymous, "I'm teaching kids who should not be in college, but I can't fail them." Every few years he sees a decline in student ability and says "I can't use the same notes or same tests I gave in previous classes."
Twenty-seven years ago when I taught at Temple University I wrote a memo to my colleagues about fraudulent grades. The memo ended up in the hands of the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Temple Professor Opposes Easy Grades for Blacks," (1/25/75). The article invoked an angry campus response. At least now there's equal opportunity: both black and white students receive fraudulent grades.
What can be done? College budgets depend on admitting warm bodies. That means we can't expect college administrators to do anything to stop unprepared students from being admitted, courses dumbed down and fraudulent grades given. Boards of Trustees tend to be yes-men and women for the president so we can't expect anything from them. The money spigot needs to be turned off. Alumni, foundations and other charitable donors, not to mention taxpayers, should be made aware of fraudulent practices and academic dishonesty. College presidents and administrators have deaf ears and closed minds to calls for academic integrity but there's nothing like the sounds of pocketbooks snapping shut to open them.
Walter E. Williams
February 18, 2002
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