CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY students are failing or withdrawing at high rates from many courses — including chemistry, calculus, English and U.S. history — prompting renewed efforts for systemwide reform.

New attention is being placed on classes that for years have shown failure or withdrawal rates of 20 percent or more — sometimes reaching as high as half the students. Efforts to overhaul the courses and improve teaching are now seen as a crucial way to help more students pass and graduate.

For example, more than a third of Sacramento State students in some physics, economics, computer science and anthropology classes failed or left those courses. At Fresno State, the same was true in some math, chemistry, criminology and music courses.

When more than 20 percent of students in a class receive a D, F or withdraw from it, that course is considered to have a high so-called “DFW rate.” Generally, course rates are averaged over three years. Cal State Los Angeles, for example, reports that about 11 percent of its undergraduate classes have high failure rates. Statistics are similar for the Fresno and Sacramento campuses.

Officials said the problem exists across all 23 campuses.

CSU, which is focused on improving courses with a lot of students, reported 686 high failure courses systemwide last fall with enrollments of at least 100. Campus administrators, however, are looking at smaller classes too, signaling that the problem is likely to be more widespread. Combining statistics from just three campuses — Fresno, Los Angeles and Sacramento — a total of 453 high failure courses were listed.

Challenging course material, ineffective teaching and unprepared or overwhelmed students contribute to the rise in high failure/withdrawal rates, experts say. Failures and repeated attempts to pass can add semesters to students’ time on campus because many of the courses are required for majors. Worse, failing a class can send students into a tailspin that leads to abandoning majors or dropping out altogether.

CSU Chancellor Joseph I. Castro had some success in improving graduation rates at Fresno State, where he previously was president. But that campus still shows 11 percent of all its courses with high failure statistics.

Since being named system chancellor in January, Castro has put a priority on reducing those high failure and dropout numbers at all CSU campuses, especially in required and introductory courses.

“It’s our goal to make sure that every student that we admit to the CSU has the full opportunity to succeed, to thrive. And it’s about providing the support necessary for them to do that,” Castro said.

Across the CSU system, officials say new efforts are aimed to help more students pass these courses. Courses are being redesigned, teaching improved, tutoring and supplemental instruction expanded — all to propel students to graduation. Among the successes, recent reform of mechanical engineering classes at Cal State Los Angeles cut failure and withdrawals in half, from 32 percent to 16 percent.

Student leaders, too, say changes to these courses are important. Isaac Alferos, president of the systemwide California State Students Association, said the group looks forward to working with CSU administrators and faculty “to identify solutions to address classes with high withdrawal and fail rates, understanding that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Officials say that getting more students to pass these classes is key to the university’s plan to significantly improve graduation rates across all campuses and ethnic groups by 2025. The so-called Graduation Initiative 2025 has shown progress since it began in 2015, but more is needed to meet its goals. Recent statistics show that 31 percent of all freshmen graduate in four years and 62 percent in six, compared with systemwide targets of 40 percent and 70 percent.

recent report by a Graduation Initiative advisory committee of faculty, staff and students urged the CSU trustees to push for improved pass rates, with an emphasis on helping Black, Latino and low-income students pass these targeted classes. The trustees are expected to discuss the issue next month or soon after.

Particularly in some science and math courses, Black and Latino students on average show significantly higher failure rates than white and Asian students. For example, at Sacramento State, the DFW rate in college algebra was 36 percent for Latino students, 33 percent for Black students, 23 percent for white students and 18 percent for Asian students.

“While earning a non-passing grade in a course can present a challenge for all students, the interruption and possible impact on time to graduation for students of color is often disproportionally negative,” the report said.

(The DFW rate includes “D” grades because those are not considered passing in many required courses. Withdrawals do not include course drops in the first two or three weeks of semesters.)

Overhauling courses

At Fresno State, 180 courses showed an average failure rate of at least 20 percent across the past six semesters, according to campus data. Those courses enrolled at least 50 students total during that period.

More than 40 courses had failure rates of at least 30 percent, and 11 of those were at 40 percent or more. The top fail rate, 49.7 percent, was in an upper-division electrical and computer engineering course focusing on signals and systems.

It’s unclear whether the switch to remote learning during the pandemic affected course failure rates.  Some classes showed worse results and others did better compared to previous in-person teaching.

Meanwhile, some courses have shown improvements credited to changes initiated before the health emergency.

For example, Cal State Los Angeles overhauled five high-enrollment courses with the steepest failure rates, often over 30 percent of students. Those included basic accounting, chemistry, computer science and economics. After some success, the program is expanding to 30 more courses, officials said.

In mechanical engineering, 32 percent of the students failed or withdrew in 2018. Then, the course was redesigned to focus more on mastery of skills than memorization. Students were offered more frequent tests with four chances to pass them. Most lectures were switched to online recordings while classes mainly became work sessions divided into groups by achievement levels. Extra tutoring was available.

Cal State Los Angeles professor Mathias Brieu helped overhaul a mechanical engineering class.

As a result, officials say, the failure rate was cut in half by last fall while faculty insist material was not watered down. Professor Mathias Brieu said the redesign has mainly helped students who previously were close to a passing C but unable to reach it. The reworking “has completely changed the atmosphere and our relationships with the students,” Brieu said. “There is a real connection now.”

The four other courses all showed improvement by fall 2020. However, the accounting and chemistry classes still had DFW rates of more than 20 percent, while economics and computer science moved below that threshold.

Michelle Hawley, Cal State Los Angeles’ associate vice president and dean of undergraduate studies, said she is pleased with the improvement but recognizes the need for more. “I’m not happy with any numbers short of 99.9 percent pass rate and zero equity gap,” Hawley said, referring to gaps in failure rates among racial and ethnic groups.

At Sacramento State, the failure rates were as high as 45 percent in digital design and physics and 30 percent in some philosophy and anthropology courses. Those numbers, and similar ones at other campuses, are “appalling,” said Tina Jordan, Sacramento State’s assistant vice president for strategic success initiatives.

In the past, she said, some professors wore high failure rates with pride, claiming them as a sign of rigor. But she said that attitude has changed as more faculty try to improve their teaching methods, especially with more cultural sensitivity about learning patterns, high school preparation and personal connections with students to help more Black and Latino students.

Sacramento State has expanded supplemental instruction, which offers three or so extra hours of review and test preparation each week. Those sessions are led by paid, specially trained students who aced that course in the past. Thirty courses at Sacramento have had supplemental instruction, and that is expected to double to 60 in this upcoming academic year, according to Jordan.

But participation in supplemental instruction is voluntary, and attendance is low.

Fresno State senior Alejandra Flores led supplemental instruction in a math class.

Alejandra Flores, a Fresno State senior, leads supplemental sessions for Math 45, which fulfills a freshman requirement and emphasizes solving real-world problems. A pre-nursing major, she took the course as a freshman, and “in the beginning, I was scared.” Without the extra help, “I honestly feel I wouldn’t have passed the class.” She got an A.

Officials say that the supplemental hours helped two sections of Math 45 reduce failure rates. However, only about 13 of the 114 students in the sections attended the extra sessions. Many students report not having enough time, given other courses, work and family responsibilities.

Another strategy is to lower class sizes. That is planned in Fresno’s freshman English composition, a requirement for all. Enrollment caps will be reduced from 25 to 20 students in most sections and to 18 for students who need more help, according to Bernadette Muscat, interim dean of undergraduate studies. The personal attention in a smaller class will be important as courses switch this fall from remote to a blend of online and in-person, she said.

Faculty feeling pressure

A concern among faculty is that they will be pressured to lower standards and inflate grades. But Castro insisted that improvement can be achieved without watering down classes. “It’s about maintaining high standards,” he said.

Throughout the CSU system, professors of classes with high failure rates are being urged by administrators to reconsider teaching methods and possibly retraining. Administrators insist this is not done threateningly. However, some faculty members, while supportive of helping more students succeed, are worried that untenured and part-time professors, in particular, could be pushed by their departments to raise grades no matter what.

The graduation initiative “has created intense pressure to reduce failure rates so that students can graduate, and to reduce the impact of bottleneck classes,” warned a report issued last year by a committee of Fresno State’s Academic Senate. While the report showed no evidence that the recent initiative is causing grade inflation, the authors expressed concerns about a possible “lowering of academic standards and grade inflation.”

Steven Filling, former chair of the CSU’s systemwide Faculty Senate and an activist in the faculty union, said he has no reports of grade inflation but fears it could surface. Grade inflation is “a recipe for ultimate failure and a disservice to our students,” said Filling, an accounting professor at CSU Stanislaus.

Jeff Gold, the CSU system’s assistant vice chancellor for student success, denied there was any pressure to pump up grades. “That couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said.

He noted that the courses with the highest failure rates now tend to be clustered in the sciences and math, although U.S. history, which requires a lot of reading, has worrisome failure statistics too. Despite these efforts, different failure rates may persist among campuses and between humanities and science courses, according to Gold.  “Our goal is not to focus on absolute numbers, but rather to bring people into the fold about how they can improve curriculum, how they can improve the support of their students so that more of them are successful,” he said.

This story originally appeared in EdSource.