Saturday, January 06, 2007

Grades, Prerequisites, and All That

I'm thinking that I'll wait until Monday to deal with the email that I've received from a student who failed precalc in the fall. Unless there has been a clerical error, I'm extremely unlikely to overturn the grade, so my decision shouldn't have any bearing on the student's spring schedule.

It's a tricky issue: if the information that the student provides is true, then it might not be the student's fault that he failed precalc.

In order to have our math-science-engineering calculus course populated by students who have a fair chance of passing, we restrict enrollment based on a placement test. Score too low on the placement test, and you need to take precalc before calculus. Since precalc is often taught by a diverse mix of instructors, there is a common final exam. I saw the final from the fall. It was pretty easy. Mostly basic algebra and trig questions, mostly calculations, no trick questions. We have a rule that you need to score a 60% on the final in order to pass the class.

Since a lot of our students arrive at our institution with very weak backgrounds, precalc is graded somewhat differently from other classes. If you pass the class with a C or better, you get the letter grade that you earn (which counts in the GPA). If you score below a C, then you receive a grade of "NC" (no credit), which does not count in the GPA. Failing precalc does not jeopardize your scholarship eligibility, destroy your GPA, or ruin your life. It just stops you from taking calculus.

The student who wrote to me was enrolled in a section taught by one of our less experienced instructors, and the student claims to have received very high test scores all semester. However, the student seems to have failed the final and, thus, failed the course. If what the student reports is true, then it seems to be the instructor's fault. But I'm not sure what the right remedy is to the situation. Giving the student a passing grade in precalc when he can't do basic algebra certainly isn't the way to go.

I guess I'll have to talk to the student and the instructor and find out what the real story is before I do anything else.