On Academic Standards

LTC Heffington claimed that

Academic standards are also nonexistent. I believe this trend started approximately ten years ago, and it has continued to get worse. West Point has stated standards for academic expectations and performance, but they are ignored.

He notes that: [emphasis added]

West Point has stated standards for academic expectations and performance, but they are ignored. Cadets routinely fail multiple classes and they are not separated at the end-of-semester Academic Boards. Their professors recommend “Definitely Separate,” but those recommendations are totally disregarded.

I recently taught a cadet who failed four classes in one semester (including mine), in addition to several she had failed in previous semesters, and she was retained at the Academy. As a result, professors have lost hope and faith in the entire Academic Board process. It has been made clear that cadets can fail a multitude of classes and they will not be separated. Instead, when they fail (and they do to a staggering extent), the Dean simply throws them back into the mix and expects the faculty to somehow drag them through the academic program until they manage to earn a passing grade.

What a betrayal this is to the faculty! Also, since they get full grade replacement if they must retake a course, cadets are actually incentivized to fail. They know they can re-take the course over the summer when they have no other competing requirements, and their new grade completely replaces the failing one.

We can boil Heffington’s claim down to: The Academy is passing people it shouldn’t be passing. How do we examine this?

Unfortunately, we can only present evidence that may corroborate, but not prove or disprove the assertion. While we can infer some things from the rates of Academic related separations, using grade scores will not be conclusive, because we don’t know:

  • The specific cadet cases that LTC Heffington mentions
  • How scores are normalized
  • The effects of any grade substitutions on the recorded GPAs
  • Whether STAP is mandatory/remedial or voluntary

For Proof, we would need cadet academic records to the class level or rollups on percentages of classes failed or retaken, or at least the written policy for treating that situation. We encourage the Academy to present such data for public discussion, but we do not have them in our dataset.

Academic Separations:

The trend of academic separations is shown below:

Academic Separations.png

This is filtered to only show separations related to Academics, and a “null” value which indicates that the cadet was not separated at all (i.e., they graduated). The x-axis is shortened so we can see the trend more distinctly.

We see that Academic separations were at lowest levels from 2007-2011, and disregard 2018, 2019, and 2020, since those classes had not graduated at the time of the data collection.

This data does not support LTC Heffington’s assertion that the Academy has gotten more lax on academics; if it did, we’d expect to see lower academic separation rates, or trending down over time from about 2007-2017; instead, we see the separation rate tending to increase, with a decline from 2007-2011. Unless the rate of failures is increasing faster than the separation rate, we can rest assured that USMA is separating people at historically comparable rates.

Let’s look at the separations broken out by those cadets who attended STAP and those who did not:

Academic Separations - STAP

We see that of those cadets who attended STAP (and apparently STAP in 2000-2004 meant you were really on the brink – we see 50-100% separation rates in those years), separation rates have been increasing (look at years 2012-2017, recalling that 2018-2020 had not yet graduated by the time of this data) for those cadets.  Academic Separation rates for cadets who have not gone into STAP  have been, on balance, not showing a trend. There are some outlier years in 2012, 2013, 2018, and 2019, but otherwise percentages have been more or less steady.

We do see the use of more Turnbacks in 2015-2017, which indicates that sub-standard performers are being retained and pushed through the system. This tends to support Heffington’s assertion, but is not conclusive.

Another difficulty is that there are many confounding factors here, including what is happening that is not reflected in the data: the actual difficulty of classes; grade inflation and replacement; criteria applied by academic boards; target graduation rates or throughput obligations to the Army; and likely other influences as well.

While we’d certainly enjoy thinking our engineering classes were much more difficult than today’s curriculum, and that we had it harder academically, we can’t back that up.

4 thoughts on “On Academic Standards”

  1. Appreciate it if the lead researcher/blogger could send me an email or give me a call. Would like to discuss methodology and facilitate a link up with an individual doing similar work vis-a-vis USNA. Rest assured of complete discretion. I am a USMA ’68 grad.

  2. Were the results of the investigation into LTC Heffington’s allegations ever published? If so, where are they viewable?

      • I stand corrected. I thought his long form response promised an investigation. It was actually his initial response that did and the result was his long form one. It was evidently not an official one.

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