Study: An average of 3/4ths of students enrolled in US History introductory courses get a C or better but thousands fail

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tags: education, AHA, US History

Andrew K. Koch, PhD, is chief operating officer of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. The data informing this analysis will be the subject of a further Gardner Institute report, by Koch and Brent Drake, on introductory courses in multiple subjects and student outcomes.

Over the past three years, 32 colleges and universities have worked with the nonprofit organization I serve—the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education—to produce a study of introductory US history courses. This analysis was conducted with the help of my colleague, Brent M. Drake, the chief data officer at Purdue University and a research fellow at the Gardner Institute, who also helped with the data analysis in this article. The Gardner Institute’s mission is to work with postsecondary educators to increase institutional responsibility for and outcomes associated with teaching, learning, retention, and completion. Through these efforts, the institute strives to advance higher education’s larger goal of achieving equity and social justice. I had the privilege of presenting the findings as part of a preconference workshop at the 2017 AHA annual meeting.

Our data set includes outcomes for nearly 28,000 students enrolled in an introductory US history course at one of the 32 institutions during the academic years 2012–13, 2013–14, and 2014–15. These institutions included 7 independent four-year institutions, 6 community colleges, 2 proprietary institutions, 5 public research universities, and 12 regional comprehensive public institutions, and all agreed to have their data included in the study. From the data, we sought aggregate and disaggregated rates of D, F, W (any form of withdrawal), and I (incomplete) grades in introductory US history courses. While not perfectly representative, the data allow for meaningful scrutiny of who succeeds and who fails in introductory US history courses.

The range of DFWI grades in these courses across the 32 institutions was 5.66 percent to 48.89 percent, and the average DFWI rate was 25.50 percent. This means that nearly three quarters of all students enrolled earned a C or better. One could argue that this DFWI rate results simply from upholding standards and rigor. But troubling trends emerge upon disaggregating the same data by demographic variables—trends that may very well reveal that the term “rigor” enables institutionalized inequity to persist.

Race, family income levels (based on whether a student receives a Pell Grant), gender, and status as a first-generation college student are the best predictors of who will or will not succeed in introductory US history courses. As fig. 1 shows, the likelihood of earning a D, F, W, or I grade is lower for Asian American, white, and female students who are not first generation and do not receive a Pell Grant. It is higher, sometimes significantly higher, for every other demographic group.

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