In last week’s blog post we focused on grading and how it should be grounded in “standards.” But what do we really mean by “standards”? How do we ensure standards are accomplishing what we want them to do? And what do we want them to do?

At UCI, there are sets of necessary criteria that students must meet in order to earn a degree. However, there is a common misconception that these sets of criteria are rigid and limited in scope. It is this characterization that transforms our standards from being useful measures to being institutional barriers to student success, and I would argue that they are a specific component of the structural/institutional racism in institutions of higher education.

If one focuses on a narrow set of conditions for excellence, you can end up excluding otherwise excellent students from participating or succeeding due to inherent structures that appear fair (because they are applied to everyone in the same way) and yet exclude valid paths to excellence. A phrase I have often used is that we need broader standards, not lower standards. This is a core element of inclusive excellence—the recognition that excellence, by definition, must embrace a diverse set of approaches. 

A fun analogy to understand the value of broadening standards is to imagine that a group of people who are very good at high jumping set up a “School for Jumping.” People who graduate from this school are declared “excellent jumpers.” The standards and measures are all based on what the faculty at this school experienced on their journey to becoming excellent high jumpers themselves. Imagine it is then brought to their attention that there are a large number of people who are also excellent jumpers—but what they do is jump long distances rather than jumping great heights. 

One can imagine two different reactions when these students show up in the “School for Jumping.” The faculty might respond by saying, “These students are not qualified to be considered excellent jumpers, and to fix them, we will provide additional training at jumping high. Some will catch up and those that do not, we cannot fix.” However, their other response could be, “Wow, there are a whole other set of jumping skills and excellence we were not capturing. We should adjust our curriculum, structures, and support so as to leverage these skills and graduate a more inclusive and diverse set of excellent jumpers.” 

I acknowledge that this analogy is not perfect, but it points in the right direction. The idea here is that we should be embracing this second response. If we accept that students enter our institution with a distribution of preparation, interests, experiences, and goals, and not some narrow set of predetermined criteria, we can adjust our standards to serve a much larger portion of our students.

I argue that one way of broadening our standards without lowering them is to focus on student assessments that measure high-level competencies as opposed to specific skills. In the context of STEM courses, a high-level competency might be phrased as “providing a quantitative-based solution to a complex problem.” Unfortunately, the most common forms of assessment focus on measuring the specific skill of by-hand mathematical calculation. Academics have traditionally espoused the necessity of this skill, and being excellent at it has long been treated as analogous to mastering the high-level competency.

However, in a professional setting, those in STEM fields are free to use computers to perform calculations rather than writing them out by hand. Their value is not measured by whether they are capable of long division or solving polynomial equations. Their job is instead to solve high-level problems using other tools (e.g. their calculators or computers) for the low-level intermediate steps.

With advancements in technology, it’s no longer important for STEM professionals to do lengthy calculations in a short amount of time, and yet we continue to test our students based on their algebraic ability. We have made very few attempts to replace requirements for fast algebra by-hand with other necessary conditions that are more applicable to the real world. While there have been a number of productive localized attempts, too often our response has been akin to the first one by the “School of Jumping” faculty. We attempt to provide more support and training to students (certainly a good thing), but we have not fundamentally changed how we test students to acknowledge some of these core issues.

We as an institution must broaden our standards if we truly want to live up to our commitment to inclusive excellence. Admittedly, making this shift will require us to rethink the structures, courses, assessments, and support that our institution is built upon. And, in doing so, we may well lose elements of our large courses that maximize efficiency. However, by expanding our criteria and definition of success, we will be better positioned to serve our students fairly, effectively, and inclusively.