Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Cruelty and Hypocrisy of Law School Grading Curves

Maybe the most remarkable thing about law professors (and perhaps others) is how 3 years of doing well in law school makes them experts on anything from administration to meditation. Lately, though, I have been thinking about law school grading curves and the lack of rationality created by these self-appointed experts.

I first found out about curves in calculus class. The teacher gave an exam and the best test taker got about 50% of the problems right. The teacher said, not or worry, the grades would be curved. I did not understand why but it was definitely OK with me. I thought curves were for when everyone did miserably but the teacher for one reason or another could not bring him or herself to report accurately how the students did.

When I started law teaching there was no curve. Then, in response to some low graders there was a suggested curve. I do not recall if this cured the low grader problem but it definitely coincided with the "grade race" and grade inflation. This was in the era of student teaching evaluations and the beginning of vanity courses. High grades reduced the risk of bad evals and could pack students into vanity courses if one was known as an easy grader. I might add, this was also the beginning of the -- what to call it -- "do not hurt their feelings"  era and anything might just do that. Actually, I do not mean to criticize this change since most of the harshness, I felt, was contrived.

So in response to a lack of grading norms (or one might even say collegiality) and complaints that the School's GPA meant that our students could not compete with others schools giving higher grades we, like may schools, instituted a curve.  (I never understood the student competition argument. I thought law firm recruitment people would be bright enough, in a world of different curves, to rely on class rank. I was assured that this was not the case.)

So in this era of "be kind to students" the solution was to pit them against each other and ratchet up the competition. Grading became a zero sum grade. No matter how you cut it, if one student were given an A, it decreased the probability that another could have an A. Instead of grading on the basis of each student's merit most schools pit their students in a horse race. It seemed to be welcomed by the students because the numbers were high enough that all horses appeared to win. Eventually, though, they adjusted as they realized that B did not mean "good" but average or, in the case of most curves, below average.

There was, however, an even more bizarre twist. Although the advent of the curve meant that no student was evaluated on the quality of his her work, the argument was made that in some classes, the curve should be higher. The reasoning was that individual merit could be counted in some contexts and for some reason this was in small classes -- yes back to packing them into vanity classes.

In the name of being fair to the students this twist meant students were torn between taking small course in something they had no interest in or even scoffed at  in order to boost their GPAs or taking classes that were often more interesting and more useful. In fact, most law schools, unless they normalize in some way,  now have multiple curves. How many? As many combinations of high and low curve courses possible in an 88 hour teaching load. And, if they then rank the students on the basis of GPAs calculated on multiple different  curves, they are being about as honest in those rankings as they are with their employment figures.

Since it does not change, I assume the students like the increased pressure and the perversion of their decision making and professors will keep doing what is "best" for their students (and for themselves.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Here are a couple of observations about the curve, both as a social scientist and as someone who is presently exposed to it in a law school context.

1. The assumption that the law school population is normal is bs. From what I have observed 99% are either capable or highly capable. The other usually drop out of their own free will. Thus normalizing an otherwise consistent population really is more of an exercise in creating a false hierarchy. Also, under an ideal rational education process you would want everyone to be competent. The curve only seems to make sense in a widely varying population that has not be exposed to the given treatment of a class etc.

2. Many employers do not seem to care about grades. Even a number of profs I have spoken with seem to realize the curve does not make much sense.

3. Considering the lack of consistency and randomness of law school assessment. i.e. one test per class, often arbitrary grading criteria, the curve makes even less sense when you consider what it is based on.
4. I have heard the rhetoric of "grade inflation" in various circles for 15 years now. Having taught in higher ed I have come to conclude it is more of a narrative to justify being a hard ass more than anything else.
5. Grades even outside of the curve are at best a simplified if not stupid way of indicating progress. Ideally, I would not grade I would assess individual competencies and areas that need improvement. The goal once it is determined that an individual is worth educating is to improve. Also, talking with employers both in practice and academia they seem more concerned with certain specific competencies.
6. I think in the law school context the curve is more of a tool to create a culture of competition, which in reality just makes the place seem more like highschool since everyone knows it really does not matter even in the context of the legal profession. Ironically, the super elite schools do not curve. Some do not even have grades....
7. Although I could see curving something like a calculus test if I know the students were competent and my instrument was not tested, the curve is also a convienant excuse for half-assed that makes the general pedagogical incompetence of higher ed look attractive and well thought out.
8. In general there is very little think about pedagogy especially in law school. It strikes me as being almost med evil in its lack of rational empiricism.