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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Distributing Grades and Grade Distribution

Greetings from glorious Tel-Aviv, where the weather today was sticky hot, and where the general neighborhood is getting, according to the news reports, even hotter.  I wanted to post today on a very simple topic: getting the grades at the end of the semester to your students. I realize this topic may seem mundane, but it appears to be a point of controversy at some schools.  At some schools (including mine) the grades for students are tagged to a blind assigned grading (BAG) number and then published on the web (or here in Israel, I saw a list of ID numbers posted on a physical bulletin board with the relevant grades.)  So, for those of you wondering, here were the grades for my criminal law class this past semester. I don't know of other American law schools that make this much information available to the students and the general public, but there are a few downsides to so much disclosure, at least to my mind. 

First, I have heard from my students that some students create spreadsheets with all the BAGS numbers and then distribute rankings of the BAGS numbers. Some students go farther and try to identify who is which number, which is not that difficult in light of some information regarding who is in smaller classes.  These rankings are then spread like kudzu.  Obviously some privacy concerns are raised, right?

Second, there are dynamic effects these grade distributions have. As a result of this information, professors get reputations as relatively tough graders or easy graders.  This has some mixed effects, especially when teaching evaluations are not shared with students to provide valuable additional information. On the one hand, students might be in a position to make better decisions regarding how to improve their grades.  But in the process they might be making bad decisions regarding what's good for their legal education and their intended career prospects.  As to professors, it might incentivize being a tough grader to reduce enrollments or, if there are rewards by deans for having larger classes to teach, then higher enrollments through easier grading.  Even with a curve and distribution requirements, one can be more generous within those ranges.

I understand that some schools simply mail a report card home, which is what I had when I was a student at HLS, revealing nothing other than the letter or numeric grade of the student in the class.  Other schools will do the same thing, but share the median grade to the student, but not the whole pattern of grade distribution.  As to the method of distribution, this information is shared by mail or by logging into a secure network, where one can access only one's own grade.  I'm trying to find out if there is a best or popular practice regarding how much information is shared with students and how students obtain such information about their grades. If you could share this information with me in the comments, and your thoughts on what would be the right amount of info and distribution method, I'd be very grateful.  And then I'll stop blogging about grades...and more about what I know you're really keen to hear about: retributive damages.

Posted by Administrators on June 19, 2007 at 01:10 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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To what extent is there a massive clump of students who have basically gotten the same grades in the middle of every distribution? Say out of a 100 person class 15 people who were clearly inferior, 15 people who were clearly superior, and 70 people who were roughly the same. I only mean grade-wise; there are probably many other differences that further break down a class and indicate ability and potential. It seems from alot of comments that this may be close to the truth. If that's the case, why would a law school have any reason to give out class rankings at all? Is there simply not enough other substantive information available for employers to pick through 70 people with B averages? I have heard that, for schools that do not post rank, the employers merely fabricate their own rough ideas of rank based on historical trends, but that should at least improve the wiggle room of those students in the middle because the employer might know you're in that group of 70 but not much more.

Posted by: student | Jun 20, 2007 11:39:35 AM

University of Minnesota students get their own grades through a secure online system. The registrar posts class distributions (like at Penn, only they seem to go up pretty promptly after all grades are in). Students don't know their rank. Rank is released for certain purposes like clerkship applications, but I think not to regular employers such as firms.

Posted by: William McGeveran | Jun 20, 2007 11:11:56 AM

At Toledo, we have the same system as Penn. (and Arkansas, and, I'll bet, many-most other schools). We don't have any formal way to tell all students about the curve, but I'll tell any student who asks me -- I think it's a good thing for them to know.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jun 20, 2007 10:48:44 AM

From a FSU law student's perspective:

The students who create the spreadsheets usually do so for the service of anxious students who want to know their approximate ranking. Every student I talk to wants one of these spreadsheets, and will make their own or beg around until they get one. It's hard to tell from your GPA alone how you are doing as there tends to be a cluster of close GPAs somewhere down the line. The difference between an 82 and an 83 could be the difference of 5 rankings or 30. It's impossible to tell unless you have the full spread in front of you. And rankings are everything in law school.

Students also tend to be incredibly (and surprisingly) transparent about their grades. I had no less than 7 students outrightly give me their BAGS#s before exams even started. Only a few students are really secretive about their grades. However, when you have a bunch of students' BAGS#s, the Dean's List, the smaller class lists, the journals and Law Review, the process of elimination just becomes incredibly easy. This is the downside to the public grading system at FSU.

I do like the system for one reason: a student can look at the grade spread in any particular class and judge how well he/she did on the exam. Students are always trying to judge how well they did on exams, and feedback is scarce, if non-existent. Each exam feels like a shot in the dark; the grading feels arbitrary. I believe the lack of feedback is the root of the problem.

A 95 or an 87 doesn't really mean much, honestly. However, if the 95 is the third highest grade in a class, then that is meaningful. If I got the third highest grade in the class, then I know I did really well on the exam. If the 87 is in the top 10% of the class, then I know I did well on the exam. I suggest that professors should at least make the spread available to students, sans BAGS#s . . . or find other means of giving meaningful feedback on the exams.

Posted by: FSU Law Student | Jun 20, 2007 9:22:42 AM

How about the French solution: Openly post all grades togehter with the full names of the students in the hallways ... Luckily I got informed about this system only after I had taken my exams, else the thought alone might have considerably lowered my GPA ...

Posted by: Positroll | Jun 20, 2007 7:20:39 AM

Bring on the RDs bro!!!

Posted by: Jim Green | Jun 19, 2007 3:33:47 PM

"On the one hand, students might be in a position to make better decisions regarding how to improve their grades. But in the process they might be making bad decisions regarding what's good for their legal education and their intended career prospects."

Of paramount importance for one's intended career prospects is good grades. This is undoubtedly the number one criterion that employers use when making hiring decisions.

Students deserve fairness, accountability, and transparency in the grading process. Any system that ranks students according to grades must have checks in place to insure that different profs are adhering to the same grading standards, otherwise there is no reason to give similar weights to grades given in different clases, by different profs. Students bargain for the ranking system; but implicit in this bargain is that grades will be given in good faith and according to similar standards so that every student is treated equally and fairly. We deserve transparency so we can monitor the system and bring flaws to the administration's attention. Moreover, we deserve clear guidelines/criteria as to what we are being graded on.

Posted by: Guest | Jun 19, 2007 1:52:22 PM

At Arkansas, the law school uses the same system as all the undergrads. Which is similar to the one described for Penn.

Your grade is posted to your transcript, usually the day after it's submitted by the professor. Only you can see your own grades. It's accessed online, but you can also request paper copies.

Class ranks are unpublished as well, to get your class rank, you have to directly request it from the dean, and she'll give you just your rank.

Some professors informally publish grade distributions in the form of handouts or emails. But they're usually in the form of

A - 2
B+ - 6
B - 17
B- - 21

and so on, so it's still difficult to tell exactly who got what.

About the only thing that is publically posted is deans list and law review, and those not until well after grades have been released.

Posted by: Ben P | Jun 19, 2007 1:36:36 PM

At Penn grades are posted to student transcripts on the web. Only you can see your own transcript. They are posted to the transcript the day after the registrar sends them in, sometimes the same day. It's fast and easy. I don't know why anything else would be used. Supposedly grade distributions for each class (w/o any identification of persons- just how many people and what percent got each grade) are made avaliable in print form from the registrar one semester after the class and the grades from several years from each class are supposed to be avalible. But my experience was that the registrar was pretty far behind in printing these things up.

Posted by: matt | Jun 19, 2007 1:23:23 PM

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