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December 5, 2008

What should we make of all the (not-always-so?) innovative grading changes?

Though law school grading and modern grade inflation are hardly an innovative topic, the news of more big schools altering or raising their grading system seems worthy of bloggy reflection.  This week the news of revised (and inflated) grading curvescome from NYU (as reported here and here) and USC (as reported here and here).

Lots of folks surely have lots of thoughts about lots of different factors that can influences and justify changes to lots of different kinds of law school grading schemes.  And I would like to hear some of those thoughts in the comments. 

I would also love to hear reactions to what I think makes the most sense as a law school grading system.  Specifically, were I creating a law school grading system from scratch, I would use a completely opaque numbering scheme to define/grade performance in individual classes (say 12 through 27) combined with a very student-friendly class rank system that reports on which student make the top 5%, top 10%, top 25%, top 33%, top 50% and top 67% of the class. 

Part of my suggestion for a student-friendly class rank system class rank system would be to include a "best in ____" or "top 10% in ____" profile for every student.  That is, I think a school could create a computer system that would figure out a name/category for whatever sets of courses each particular student has done especially well.  So, even if a student is only ranked in the top half of her class, or even ends up in the bottom third of his class, the student's official transcript might still say "best in business courses" or "top 10% in public law course" or "best in legal writing courses."

Some related LSI posts:

Posted by DAB

December 5, 2008 in Grading systems | Permalink


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I think that it doesn't really matter what grading system or curve that a school uses so long as a school ranks the entire class. It is not so much whether you make an A- or a B+ as where you stand relative to your peers. In the end, that is what really matters, certainly to recruiters--where is this person relative to everyone else? Hard to tell how an A- at a grade-inflated school compares to a B+ at a less-inflated school, but if the person has done better than 85% of their peers and the other guy has only outperformed 60% of his peers, that is more meaningful and easier to grasp. What troubles me is that you don't see schools ranking the entire class. Some only release top 10% cutoffs or top 10% and top 25%. It is hard, therefore, to know where a student who doesn't meet that cutoff stands.

Posted by: Robert | Dec 9, 2008 2:03:33 PM

As an addendum, I don't think that ranking individual classes, beyond perhaps designating who had the top grade in a given class, is a good idea. Too often we take ridiculous steps to falsely boost supposedly fragile egos and try and make everyone feel special. Like making up awards so that everyone on the little league team feels like a winner ("Little Johnny had the most spirit and Suzy had the cleanest uniform, here are your trophies!"). If we go out of our way and invent "accomplishments" so that everyone is labeled the best at something, it dramatically reduces the value of being the "best". I think Thurgood Marshall once opined something along the lines of "the ease with with the conclusion was reached suggests the worthlessness of the accomplishment." If everyone is a winner what is winning worth?

Posted by: Robert | Dec 9, 2008 2:14:09 PM

What a mess, but it is par for the course. Reward the elites and make the folks who go to lower-ranked schools work twice as hard for half as much.

Posted by: Joe Miller | Dec 9, 2008 5:04:51 PM

There is often a contentious debate between two groups

group A
are those who are against grading on a curve (believe grades are a bad predictor of performance in the workplace or just don't care about meritocracy in the workplace). Group A also includes those who don't understand ranking at all and believe these "changes" mean something (i can guarantee Harvard will still know who is in the top 10%)

Group B are those who do understand ranking and think those in group A either don't get it or demand there be some way of determining who gets first pick in the job market, and thus support grades as a way of doing that.

I belong to group C-I believe grades (or more importantly ranking) are the most important and necessary way to produce a meritocracy where people who are smarter or work harder or better under pressure get the best jobs. However, this belief does not mean I am like group B and support the current law school model of 1 test determining a grade in each class. A far better way to guarantee a meritocracy and supply employers with a basis for determining which students will be the best employees is to make grades a blend in each class of several assignments of tests/quizzes or papers of diffrent types in each class-each worth a percentage of the grade. This system would eliminate some of the natural errors the system makes by reassuring student's ability in a class in a single moment. For example, a multi assignment evaluation system would be less prone to influence of sickness or personal disaster at the end of the semester (esp in the all important 1L year)-because the end of the year exam would only account for a portion of the actual evaluation. this system might also favor those who adapt slower to school but function great afterward over those who have average performance throughout(which would logically correspond to similar workplace behavior which employers might like). Indeed, no other professional school-including medical school (which certainly values performance under pressure) uses a 1 test per course evaluation system as their classic model.

The only possible downside is more work for students or professors-and this is why it is never talked about seriously among any law school elite ;)-that and the fact that anyone who argues against he current system are instantly seen by people in group B as people in group A.

Posted by: annoyed 2L | Dec 15, 2008 6:17:03 PM

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