Saturday, July 20, 2013

D or F?

Some time ago, I assessed a master's thesis at a Norwegian university (I do so regularly, at different universities). It was a half-assed piece of work, and I gave it a low mark, as I should. This didn't happen without discussion or resistance; the other assessor disagreed initially. We went through the thesis very thoroughly, and also read the descriptions of the use of the different grades in the Norwegian system. At the end we agreed that the grade was the only possible one, from the content and the descriptions. The internal assessor had hoped for a better grade for the student, but that's why we use external assessors in this system: in order to have qualified, unbiased readings.

In this process, the other assessor said something that stuck with me. "But when they apply abroad, they look at this grade, and our students don't have a chance, because in the US, the grades are used differently." The implication was that this paper would have gotten a much better grade in the US. Now, I can't grade according to a hypothetical standard in another country, so the argument didn't change anything. But it triggered a curiosity about the performance of American students vs Norwegian, because one of my impressions is that in the US, there is a much higher general failure rate. In Norway, if you start an education, you may not always excel, but you have a very high chance of finishing. My impression was that in the higher education in the US, the drop-out rate is much higher.

Today I read about the failure rate in MOOC - Massive Online Open Courses - in California, or more precisely, San José. Now, comparing regular teaching with MOOCs is unfair. Any teacher with a tad of experience knows the difference between seeing the students face to face and writing them. However, a sentence in the article caught my attention:
Gov. Jerry Brown had lauded the goals of the program to allow students to graduate faster and reduce their debt loads at a time when only 16 percent of California State students graduate in four years.

Almost all Norwegian students are state students. The education is free. How many graduate in four years? From SSB, the state-owned statistics bureau (which, by the way, has been noted as being more critical of the educational system than the private agency paid to assess it.):
Av de om lag 30 600 studentene som startet på bachelorutdanning for første gang i 2006, fullførte 45 prosent innen tre år. Etter ytterligere to år hadde 62 prosent fullført. Sammenlignet med studentene som startet i 2005, har andelen som fullførte innen fem år økt med 4 prosentpoeng. I løpet av denne femårsperioden var det 23 prosent som avbrøt studiet. 9 prosent av disse avbrøt etter første året. Bachelorutdanningen i økonomiske og administrative fag hadde høyest andel av studenter som avbrøt i løpet av fem år, hele 33 prosent.

45% have finished in three years. In five years, 62% have finished. 23% have quit, and didn't finish over five years. We don't know if they resumed/will resume their education later. Now, discussing which universities and colleges we should compare our universities with is a bit useless. Norway doesn't have the private Ivy-league schools, but we have a pretty solid state-run educational system. We can't really compare either way, but we do tend to compare our system with the Ivy-league schools, as these are the goal for many of our students who go abroad. But who are the Ivy-league students? They are the children of the educated and well-off, and what does statistics tell us about academic success and social background?

If we look at the figure in the article from SSB, it's pretty clear. Children of parents with higher education finish more higher education. Children of parents with no education finish less. (Considering that none of my parents finished high-school, I am an anomaly according to this statistic: a person from my background should not have a doctorate. Yes, I thank the Norwegian welfare state and the miracle of our educational system regularly.) We compare a system which encompasses students from all backgrounds, with a system which exclusively caters to those with the best chances. We expect our students to compete with the very top of the heap of an extremely competitive system, where failure and dropping out is more common than completing an education.

There's no real conclusion to this. I am not saying which of these two systems is the better (although, see above, I know where my loyalty lies.) What I am saying is: They can't really be compared. The Norwegian educational system needs some serious tweaking, I agree. But I don't feel bad about giving a low grade to a student who doesn't perform well. They are still miles ahead of the large numbers of US students who do not get a grade at all. If we are to compare our students with the American ones, we need to compare both ends. And when it comes to making sure the population is educated, we perform very well indeed.

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