Tuesday, November 26, 2013


Every law school has undergone grade inflation.  At my school, like almost all others, an average exam gets a B+.  Also, like my school, virtually every school I have examined has more than one tier of grades. Large sections are subject to a lower curve and small sections, seminars, or other courses qualify for a higher curve.

Law schools have, in effect, created a shopping opportunity.  Students must make the not so hard decision -- do I take a course with a B+ average grade or one that has an (almost) A- grade. I think most would agree that choosing a course based on the curve is not consistent with taking courses that are the most helpful in terms of preparing for 40 or so years of practicing law. 

To overcome shopping you need to have one curve for all courses (or perhaps a limit on the number of high curve courses taken). At my school where the "low" curve is 3.2 and the high one 3.6 this would seem to mean meeting somewhere between the two. But here is where honest differences in opinion combine with self interest and a form of free-riding to make things difficult. While nearly everyone agrees there is a problem and understands the solution, many people do not want to give lower grades. In a sense they do not want to make a contribution to the cause. 

Sometimes the reasons are well intended and stated. Others are not stated.  For example, suppose you teach a vanity course (a  course that disappears if you do). And suppose you are able to get a small group to register. Further suppose that the reason they register at all is because the class is small and subject to the higher curve. I think you catch my drift here -- lower grades may mean the vanity course is not offered at all. Say you teach "Law and Really, Really  Deep (So Deep it is Hard to Think about Them) Feelings." It might occur to you that unless you can give an almost A- average you might find yourself teaching Civil Procedure instead.

Maybe people think giving an almost A- means better teaching evaluations. I have no idea if this is true but my hunch is that the high curve means a less competitive experience and that students are likely to enjoy that atmosphere. 

And then there is the most discouraging rationale of all:  "Some" students may not have done well in large courses and they need the smaller ones with higher curves to address GPA issues. Recently the word around the halls is that "some" refers to minority students. I cannot verify that this is the unstated rationale because this is always said privately.   Is it really OK to assume minority students will not do well? As an informal  empirical matter, in the classes I have taught that would be the wrong assumption. There is no difference in performance that I have noticed or been told about. 

This leads to a more interesting question. What do people who make this assumption and then act on it get out of it?  It has to be something they get because the notion that they are "helping" someone else, if ever true, is woefully outdated. 


Fred said...

This one is great. (especially the picture)

A few things:

- I don't think the shopping opportunity you describe is as pronounced as it may appear on its face. Students themselves are aware of the pitfalls associated with taking a vanity course. Although grades are important to students, so is work experience, and judges look down on transcripts dotted with vanity courses. Maybe 3Ls who have already given up will take these courses but they might be worried about the bar and decide to take a course that will better prepare them on the exam. Also, if everyone agrees that these courts won't better prepare you maybe students will realize this too. Regardless, the point is that simply because a class is statistically likely to give you a better grade does not necessarily mean students have a "not so hard decision".

- "Maybe people think giving an almost A- means better teaching evaluations".
-- Do these things really even matter? (I don't fill mine out. If I knew that they did I might in the future). Either way, the evaluations ask for your projected grade so I assume that this is factored in some way.

- "Recently the word around the halls is that "some" refers to minority students."
--I won't go there, but, if anyone knew the answer to this question it would be the people supplying the grades. So If the empirical evidence suggests otherwise I think it would be fair to rely on that.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

Fred, you are such a kvetcher. On your first point, the students were surveyed on this and overwhelming reported that the curve did influence decisions. Second, yes as crazy as it seems, some faculty obsess over these numbers (less so now that it is online and the response rate has dropped) and they are often discussed in the yearly review as though they matter. Finally, suppose as an empirical matter a group of students (as a general matter) does worse than average. Should the curve be designed to help them (even if they do not want it or find it insulting).

Fred said...

"Suppose as an empirical matter a group of students (as a general matter) does worse than average. Should the curve be designed to help them (even if they do not want it or find it insulting)."

- No the curve should not be designed to help any particular student or group of students. Why would any particular group of students be more deserving of help than others...
- Ignoring the benefits the law school reaps by using a curved grading system, my understanding is that the curve is to promote standardization between sections, such that students taking Contracts with one professor should expect the same grade distribution as another section of students taking contracts with a different professor. Though this doesn't even work because some professors simply refuse to grant A's so that they don't have to give low grades either.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

Fred, You are so right, Many schools have a required distribution to avoid what you are writing about. The barriers to achieving something like that are huge and have more to do with the sociology of faculty meeting than the merits.