We Have, and Are Trying, To Do Better: A Response and Update to the SAT/ACT Article

On Friday, April 26th, a Tech article was released that took the undergraduate population by storm. Titled “You Can and Should Do Better, Faculty Members,” it revealed how the Faculty Board had come to reinstate the standardized testing requirement for undergraduate admissions. The author publicized an internal faculty petition criticizing current student performance in two sophomore-level Electrical Engineering courses: EE 44 “Circuits and Systems” and EE 55 “Mathematics of Electrical Engineering”.

The petition was scathing, to say the least. And the “Friend of the Students” who leaked it didn’t hesitate to point out its flaws. They pointed out that the data wasn’t representative. They theorized that the difference in grades most likely stemmed from educational gaps in the COVID years and core classes, not SAT/ACT material. Most of all, they were upset that faculty were discussing performance in such a deprecatory way behind the student’s backs. The writer expresses many opinions that many people share at least in part, but they did not fully consider how releasing this petition would actually affect the students.

Students found the text of the petition more than just “painful to hear,” as the author predicted. Some felt the petition writers were calling the current undergraduates stupid. Some memed the absurdity of it. And bearing the brunt of all this commotion was a small group of 16-17 students — the majority being the EE sophomores — whose exam scores were the core data of the petition.

The Executive Officer and the option representative of EE organized an office hour first with the EE sophomores, and then a larger meeting with more faculty present for all EE undergraduates, to hear the opinions of the students and tell their side of the story. The majority of what follows comes from discussions during those meetings and in separate encounters with these faculty members, and we appreciate the willingness of the EE faculty to make time for us and organize these. We do recognize that not every perspective is considered here because we mostly talked to EE faculty and we (the writers) are EE, but we hope this can clear up some of the confusion and emotional distress surrounding this petition. Our intention is simply to inform, and hope that there is no greater conflict caused by this response.

One of the primary causes for the upset caused by the petition is simply missing context. For starters, it is easy to forget that the intended audience of the petition is the faculty. As such, the petition omits faculty discussion prior to and after its authorship, removing much of the context from an external perspective. The faculty have assured us that this petition is not indicative of all discussions on the topic. There have been nuanced discussions with more comprehensive analysis taken into consideration by the faculty board, regardless of the harsh words in the petition, specifically in the context of the return to standardized testing. Though this petition was criticized for not providing routes to support current students, the faculty have confirmed to us there are other committees dedicated to discussing exactly that. This petition served as an addition to the discussion regarding standardized testing and the tasks of the admissions committees, not to the discussion of supporting current students. This does not imply that faculty aren’t supportive of the current students, but rather that this petition was not the right means by which to have the discussion of supporting current students.

The data, while largely non-representative of the entire undergrad population and not taking into account all factors (i.e. ignoring the differing exam formats for the compared years of EE 55), was supposed to bring unavoidable facts to close a long drawn-out discussion on the return of standardized testing. To the faculty, this petition summarized the most dramatic of the limited evidence they had to reinforce their position on previous discussions, hence why the petition reads as very harsh and lacking a nuanced argument. For this, several faculty expressed they were sorry for the hurt the petition leak caused students, both within the meetings and during individual encounters. While desperation doesn’t necessarily excuse the faculty from presenting the undergraduates in this manner (even privately!), the faculty empathizing with the consequences of the petition leak on the students is an indication that there was no purposeful mal-intent.

Additionally, the faculty had a wide range of views concerning the content of the petition. Within the faculty members who signed the petition, some contributed to the writing of the petition, some fully agreed with everything said, some agreed with the main points but not how it was presented, and some agreed with only some of the points. There were many faculty who signed the petition but added their own comments at the end expressing individual opinions, none of which were published by The Tech. One of the parts of the petition that seems to be widely considered hurtful was the sentence categorizing students as either “A & B students” or “D & F students.” Some people took the sentence to mean that the current students “could only get D and F grades,” but with the inclusion of these comments, the connotation becomes the more neutral “students who received D and F grades.” While some of us did not receive the best grade in these classes, the faculty do not believe that we are stupid. They genuinely want us to succeed, and want to support us in any way that they can. They are proud of our accomplishments and happy to support us in our harder times. As mentioned before, there are many different committees of faculty that consider many aspects of the student experience. Major requirements, class sequences, class content, general education reform, etc. are all subjects of faculty discussions. As an example of the changes enacted by these committees, the EE major has recently added popular tracks in Computer Engineering, Medical Engineering, and Intelligent Systems, providing students much needed flexibility when choosing a specialization for their studies at Caltech.

Another highly discussed topic among the faculty is the core curriculum. Core is one of the most mentioned topics when it comes to faculty support, and is also one of the theorized causes for why students feel underprepared for classes like EE 44 and 55. As the op-ed mentions, recent revisions to the core curriculum may be partially to blame for the drop in diagnostic exam scores. Last year, the Student Faculty Conference (SFC) ran a special topic on the core curriculum, surveying the views of 300 undergraduates on the current state of core. The data collected by the SFC committee support the idea of core’s failure to teach fundamentals: while 97% of students come to Caltech with a college level equivalent course in a core-represented subject, only 54.5% feel prepared for core, with 54.6% reporting they do not believe Caltech provides the resources necessary to bring all students up to the standards of core. With regards to core math, which is especially relevant for EE 44 and 55, the SFC survey also reports an astounding 68.6% of students believe that Ma 1a did not improve their understanding of calculus, with 25% of students continuing to struggle with calculus after this course. We do acknowledge, however, that core is continuing to reform to benefit students, and these shortcomings will not always hold true. Throughout this year, the Core Curriculum Steering Committee (CCSC), chaired by Dr. Mitchio Okumura, has been working to enact the suggestions raised during last year’s SFC to reform the core curriculum. The faculty know core has much room for improvement, and committees like the CCSC are working to bring these improvements to fruition, providing students with a solid foundation prior to sophomore year.

Lastly, the students and faculty agreed that EE 44 and EE 55 scores were not at all indicative of overall success. EE 44 is about linear circuit analysis, which relies heavily on differential equations and gnarly algebra. EE 55 covers linear algebra and probability in the context of information theory. Both are mathematically intensive, and known to both faculty and students as the most demanding core classes in the EE major. Though the petition describes EE 44 as “introductory” and 55 as simply “Mathematics of EE,” the intended audience of the petition would know that these classes build off of the basic skills tested in Quiz 0 and teach a plethora of difficult concepts, with challenging math to match. Senior EEs acknowledged that they too had struggled with these classes, yet had grown so much after them. Professor Azita Emami, who teaches EE 45 (a core sophomore EE class after 44 and 55), said she hadn’t found the smores to be particularly better or worse than previous years she had taught, regardless of the grades in 44 and 55. She expressed the professors’ pride in their students and their belief that the students would obtain mastery in electrical engineering by graduation regardless of their foundations coming into the major. In another meeting, the faculty emphasized the importance of learning what you are interested in, rather than focusing on grades. They asserted that a lower grade does not mean that you will not be successful, and that a passion for what you do is much more important (to grad schools and companies too) than a perfect GPA.

While this experience is unfortunate and should not have happened, some good came out of it. Since the publication of the op-ed, there have been numerous conversations between students and faculty within and outside the EE department centered upon faculty support for student life. While the faculty operate at a noticeable disconnect from the students, they have expressed their willingness to advocate on our behalf to bring change to benefit our student experience. While it may seem intimidating or difficult to reach out to the faculty, they are nearly always willing and available to talk to students about how they can use their position to provide support. To students outside EE, we recommend connecting with the faculty in your department to let them know how to better support the students. Though sometimes professors may seem far out of reach or like an idol, they too are humans who care for their students, so don’t be afraid to talk to them. To the faculty, reaching out on your side separately from the classroom through, for example, departmental socials, is helpful too. The Student Faculty Conference (SFC) held in alternating years is also a helpful resource to align both student and faculty perspectives regarding each major.

Although we have not yet resolved all of the issues with this faculty petition, we hope this response not only brings to light the context behind the petition, but also restores confidence in yourself and/or faculty, while bridging the divide between the students and faculty. We would like to extend sincere gratitude to all of the faculty who supported us and brought clarity to this discussion, especially to Ali Hajimiri, Azita Emami, Babak Hassibi, Changhuei Yang, and Glen George for their inspiring and genuine comments at the EE faculty open house. We hope that through continuing discussions with the faculty, we can improve Caltech for both students and faculty from here on out.