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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Grades and class rank

Folks are talking (Brooks beat me to it) about the article in today' Times on law schools altering their grading curves (sometimes retroactively) to bump students' GPAs, making students look stronger and thus more attractive to employers.

We just altered our curve, although not retroactively (one of my colleagues was part of a retroactive revision at his previous school and said it was a nightmare). We previously had a strict, fairly harsh curve containing both a mean (2.47-2.67 in 1L classes, 2.58-2.88 in upper-level) plus a mandatory distribution at the top end. In fact, our continued adherence last fall to the curve put us against the trend. But no more. Our new system (modeled after several other Florida schools) eliminates the mean, imposes a more-generous high-end distribution, and establishes a bottom-end distribution. Although, for what it is worth, I could have satisfied the new curve in my Civ Pro class simply by bumping a couple of Cs to C+s. The new curve still leaves professors with a range and broad discretion.

Jon Siegel suggests that employers opposed to this sort of grade inflation could fight back by ignoring GPA and focusing on class rank. I agree it would be great if firms would shift their focus. The problem is an (anecdotal) strong resistance in the legal market to do so. Part of the push to change here came because our dean's conversations with people in the hiring market convinced him that GPA was the be-all-end-all and class rank did not matter. As a relatively new, lower-tiered school, firms are interested only in our very top students. But many firms seemed to say that a 3.3 GPA was not high enough for them to look at, even if that person was # 3 in the class.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 22, 2010 at 11:16 AM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


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I've got a couple questions, and would benefit from hearing from 1) professors at low-median/mean schools, and 2) students from Harvard, etc., who enjoy a pass/fail system (perhaps Ben has experience he can share).

My first reaction, stimulated by the article, and reinforced by Howard's post, is that a GPA in the range of 2.5-2.7 is shockingly low. I have difficulty believing that a school that could reliably generate so many mediocre students should in fact be accepting that many students in the first place. Of course, if a GPA of 2.5 only means "much weaker than many other students at this school", then I could see it as unavoidable. I have the uncomfortable feeling, however, that it means "marginal quality at best". If this is accurate, then I can understand to some extent the bilious invective that dominates law student discussion boards - an invective shaped by the sense that the writers have been defrauded.

I've taught at several schools, whose entering LSAT numbers varied considerably. I have often felt that mandatory curves in practice underestimate students' likely achievements. I have wondered whether this is the result of schools' efforts to signal that top graduates, despite the school's lower ranking, are in fact reliable. I understand this, but it seems to leave a non-negligible chunk of deserving students behind. (I have a weaker objection to mandatory means, which my own school has recently adopted).

To the Harvard and Berkeley students - does this actually work? I imagine that employers are eager for such students, and that is one reason, maybe the only reason, why they can "get away with" a limited-grade system. However, I understand that these systems still control the number of "honors" or "high pass" grades, which causes me to think that employers would simply ignore students who had received only grades of "pass", in favor of those tilted towards "honors". Am I wrong about this?

Posted by: Adam Scales | Jun 22, 2010 4:28:02 PM

But many firms seemed to say that a 3.3 GPA was not high enough for them to look at, even if that person was # 3 in the class.

This strikes me as incredibly bizarre and makes it more understandable that universities would want to inflate grades. But I think that there are better ways reduce such excessive scrutiny. The pass/fail system at schools like Harvard, Yale, and Berkeley, for example, reduces competition without seeking to deceive employers by redefining As, Bs, and Cs.

Posted by: Ben Buchwalter | Jun 22, 2010 1:46:00 PM

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