Law School Grade Inflation:

My post below led some commenters to ask whether there's been grade inflation in law school grades. A few related answers.

1. When I was a UCLA Law School student in 1989-92, our curve was 20% As, 40% Bs, and 40% Cs or below (the "below" grades were optional and very rare) in each course. In the mid-90s, we shifted to 20% As, 60% Bs, and 20% Cs or below. Recently, we shifted to a 25-29% As, 41-52% B/B+s, 18-22% B-s, and 5-8% Cs or below for first year classes, and 23-27% As, 50-60% B/B+s, 17-23% B-s, and 0-10% Cs or below for second and third year classes (basically a 3.2 median, slightly below a B+). So our median grades have been increasing, from B- to B to B+ish, and our Cs have been declining.

2. On the other hand, the quality of our incoming students, at least as measured by the LSAT (which to my knowledge has not had any grade inflation of its own), has been increasing, too: In 1998, the first year in which U.S. News & World Report reported the 25th and 75th percentile LSAT scores, UCLA's range was 159-165; this year it was 162-169 (on a 120-180 scale). This is part of a broader trend that is seen even at higher-ranked schools; Columbia was ranked #4 both years, but its LSAT 25-75 range rose from 165-171 to 168-173. Should this justify a corresponding rise in law school grades? I don't know how to answer that.

3. Also, for whatever it's worth, incoming UCLA law students, on average, had an A- average at their undergraduate schools (the 25-75 percentile range reported this year in U.S. News was 3.51-3.82). Back when we gave lots of Cs, lots of students would get their first Cs of their lives at UCLA Law School. Is that the way things should be? Again, I don't know how to answer that.

4. As best I can tell, the increases in our grades have been driven by one main factor: The increases in grades at other schools. We shifted to a B median in the mid-90s because we noticed that most Top 20 schools had a B median. Our B- students were roughly comparable in class rank to B students at peer schools, but they looked worse to employers who weren't that familiar with the UCLA system. (An employer could of course look closely at the descriptions of the grading systems and figure out the difference, but we were afraid that many employers wouldn't look that closely.)

We shifted to a B+ median recently because we noticed that most Top 20 schools had done the same. I'm pretty confident that we were at the trailing edge of the change, not the leading edge. We didn't want to increase our grades beyond what others were doing, but we also didn't want our students to be at a disadvantage. This sort of behavior may be bad in some overall sense. But it is sensible for a school that's trying not to leave its students unfairly disadvantaged. If someone suggested some multi-law-school grading reform, I might endorse it (though I can't speak to any antitrust law questions this might or might not raise). But so long as each school has to make these decisions by itself, I think we did what we had to do.

5. Though I'm not wild about grade inflation, I should note that a B+ median still leaves plenty of gradations between students, especially when one averages together the grades in many classes. If everyone got A+s or As (which is more or less the system at Yale, with what I'm told is roughly 20-30% of each course getting Hs, and the rest getting Ps with the exception of a very few LPs and fails), that might pose more of a problem. But a system with plenty of A+s, As, A-s, B+s, Bs, and B-s, and occasional Cs (with some required in the first year) adequately conveys to employers which students tend to be better and which tend to be worse. And to the extent that such a system causes confusion when employers compare UCLA students from one grading system with UCLA students from another (which tends to be rare, since most students are competing against others who graduate the same year or shortly before or after), maintaining the same median as other schools diminishes confusion when employers compare UCLA students with students from other schools.

6. One possible solution to this problem is to report class rank, something that I'm told virtually no schools systematically do these days (though when it comes to top graduates who are applying for clerkships or teaching jobs, many schools do in fact report informal ranks). But for complex reasons — which may be caused partly by excessive egalitarianism, and partly by a plausible (though not obviously right) concern that the difference between 60th percentile and 40th percentile probably looks bigger than it should, and that a GPA may do a better job of indicating how slight that difference is — there's been little move to return to the class rank system.

Mark Deming (mail):
I hate to point out the obvious here: The ABA should require a specific grade distribution. It doesn't matter where the curve falls (although a lower median would allow better students to distribute themselves further from each other) so long as everyone is using the same curve. It removes the guessing for employers (Is a 3.2 at UMN better than a 3.3 from WUSTL?) and erases the need for grade inflation.

If not this solution, obviously something has to be done. Schools can only continue inflate so far. There is a ceiling up there that they are rapidly approaching.
6.8.2006 3:14am
Eugene Volokh (www):
I wonder whether we are indeed rapidly approaching a ceiling. Even setting aside the rare Cs, Ds, and Fs in upper division classes, and the 5% mandatory Cs in first-year classes, we still have six grades. A grading system that gives A+s, As, A-s, B+s, Bs, and B-s distinguishes students better than one that gives As, Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs, simply because it has six grades rather than five. True, one that had nine realistic grades from C- to A+ would distinguish them better still, but I'm not sure that nine is that much more precise than six.

As I said, if we were to get to just an A+ and an A, the situation might be worse. But I don't see that happening, except at a school like Yale that knows it can afford to do it. So while I feel some unease about grade inflation, I'm not sure that the problems with it are that obvious.
6.8.2006 3:28am
Jim Hu:
The grades in graduate courses here are probably median B or B+, even though the differences you worry about don't affect our students as much...publication is more important than grades for a PhD student. But part of the reason the curve is shifted way up relative to the undergrads is that grad students are expected to maintain a B average to remain in good standing. Giving a D carries the psychological weight of giving an F.

This makes it a bit of a shock for students who get put on probation or kicked out for getting too many Cs.

Did you see the article about grade deflation at BU. Ann Althouse blogged it (so did I, but I saw it at her site).
6.8.2006 3:46am
Sameer Parekh (mail) (www):
I beleive that with regards to your point #3 -- I think that students should be faced with eventually getting C's, even though they received A's in undergrad. Life is hard, and it only gets harder as you get older, and if the student isn't actually the smartest student in the world (but still pretty smart) and they continue to get A's in school then they will be conditioned to expect the rest of their life to be just as easy, and then they will be in for a rude awakening. I speak from direct experience.
6.8.2006 9:03am
James Grimmelmann (mail) (www):
A question for Prof. Vokh.: Do you personally feel that your students' abilities map well onto the curve? Do you wish you had more intermediate gradation? More grades at the higher and lower ends of the scale? Or are you forced to use too many different grades. It seems to me that a key issue here is whether you feel that your own ability to evaluate students and the curve have the same number of significant digits, so to speak.

Oh, and also, I've heard through hearsay -- at least double, and possible even more remote -- that Yale's percentage of H's is higher, maybe as high as 50%.
6.8.2006 9:06am
The number of GPA divisions you get is obviously a function both of the number of grade divisions per class and also the number of classes. As it turns out, you don't need a lot of grade divisions per class given the typical number of classes in something like a three year program. In fact, even with just a binary division (eg, A and A+), you add a GPA division for every class taken (eg, after one class you have two GPA divisions (A and A+), after two you have three (no A+, one A+, and two A+), after three you have four (no A+, one A+, two A+, and three A+, and so on).
6.8.2006 9:08am
In theory, of course, your choice of grading schemes (within broad limits) shouldn't really matter as long as it is transparent, because then people can figure out how to "translate" one scheme into another.

I think the problem, if it is exists, is that at least some people assume they know (at least approximately) what a certain grade or GPA means without looking at the actual underlying scheme in detail. So, for example, people will assume certain things about an "A-average student", or a "B-average student", and might even assume the former has done better than the latter without looking at the underlying schemes.

Which just supports Mark's basic point--the best way to prevent such confusion would be to mandate a standard scheme.
6.8.2006 9:23am
Cornellian (mail):
I believe Cornell has a mandatory 3.3 average grade for each class, except very small classes. I recall a prof once mentioning that there was some debate about whether this should be "3.3 or the average GPA of the students in the course, whichever is higher" which obviously would only be applicable in second and third year.

I think a curve is eminently sensible to reduce the problem of grade inflation though you'd still have the problem of comparison with schools that do have grade inflation.

A few options:

1) Law firm recruiters are not idiots. With a clear statement of grading policy on each transcript (including each grade's "market share" of that course) one would hope they realize that a 3.8 GPA is meaningless when 75% of the class has it.

2) Law schools can agree with each other on a standard curving policy. I don't see the anti-trust problem provided it's transparent and any law school can join. Get your own legal advice on this one, I'm not a lawyer (yet).

3) Law firms really care about ranking as that's what really tells them where you stand, so publish rankings instead of just GPA's.

Personally I like option 2 and you don't need every law school in the USA to sign on, just the top 30 - 40 schools.
6.8.2006 9:47am
As long as the system is transparent, it makes no difference what the numbers are - interested parties can translate.

The biggest problem with grade inflation is that students who attend through these statistically large transistions get the shaft - comparing with the next year's class, like with a clerk, or especially where a graduating class has students with varying terms under the new regime - like 4-year night students, or joint JD program students. They have "artificially" deflated rank/averages.

The other problem is that not all systems are transparent - I reviewed the academics of a Georgetown grad recently. The school didn't publish rank, percentile or curve so I couldn't meaningfully evaluate whether the B+ (sans honor designation) was top-half of the class or quite mediocre.
6.8.2006 10:01am
Florida_Lawyer (mail):
My wife's law school (Florida State) reports its students' grades and GPA on a 0-100 scale rather than 0-4.0. The standard letters are also assigned, but FSU's system allows students (and employers) to distinguish a "93" A from a "97" A.

I'm not aware of any other school that uses this system, so it could be difficult to compare 0-100 GPA's with 0-4. But for those who value intermediate gradation, this is probably the way to go.
6.8.2006 10:04am
Tracy Johnson (www):
At least the lower grades (C's and D's) aren't inflated because professors didn't want their lower quality students (those who went to college only to get a draft deferment,) fail their classes and get sent to 'Nam.

Different era, different statistics.
6.8.2006 10:14am

Interestingly, though, I have had several legal employers ask me to help explain my grades (eg, "Is this a good grade at your school?") over time. In that sense, it seems to me that even if they could figure all this out independently with enough effort, they aren't willing to put in that effort in all cases.

Which makes sense--at some point the marginal return associated with independently learning more details about each prospective employee's school's grading scheme may be outweighed by the marginal costs associated with learning those details. But insofar as schools could easily reduce those costs (by, say, adopting some standards), it would seem to make sense to do so.

Unless, of course, the schools think their students--or at least enough of their students--benefit from all this. Which is entirely possible.
6.8.2006 10:23am
James Grimmelmann (mail) (www):
Princeton computer scientist Ed Felten did analysis of the information content of Princteon's grades. He found that contemporary grades conveyed about 10% less information than grades from three decades ago. With fewer grades to choose from, professors had fewer signals to send about students' performance. The difference in information content over time was smaller than some expected.
6.8.2006 10:36am
Nobody special:
Regarding the Yale grading system:

1. In a few small classes, there are up to 50% Hs given out. But the vast majority of classes feature about 20-30% Hs.

2. Contra the post's parenthetical suggestion, Yale's Hs and Ps are not akin to other schools' A+s and As -- more like As and Bs. As proof, note that getting all Ps at Yale isn't impressive in the least because it's the default. Getting all As at pretty much any school is.
6.8.2006 10:38am
I think my school uses roughly a "C" curve - it's a rare class that gives out more than 1 or 2 "A"s. In our case, though, I think it's to compensate for our rather low rank, the idea being that since our curve is so low, "B" and "A" students should hopefully be comparable to those same kinds of students from higher-ranked schools. Being in a part-time evening program probably makes it slightly different, too, since our class sizes are so small.

For whatever all that is worth...
6.8.2006 10:44am
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
Are we really married to the "A through F" concept on this? It seems an substantially more accurate and less complicated system, to simply take each student's raw scores, adjusted by class participation, map it out over the bell curve, with the percentile being the grade.

This would create a more accurate distribution pattern, and would eliminate math-work for employers.
6.8.2006 10:46am
Houston Lawyer:
When I was at Texas, the grades were numerical, with 85 through 94 (allegedly the highest grade) being an A, 75 through 84 being a B, etc. There was also a strict bell curve, with only 7% of the class allowed an A. Half the class got Cs or worse, although you had to distinguish yourself to fail. This was different from other schools, but those who recruited there knew the grade distribution and worked with it.

Sometime in the 90s, when the job market sucked, they changed the system to increase the average GPA.
6.8.2006 10:59am
There are also advantages to not distinguishing as heavily, particularly between students at the bottom. NYU's curve is essentially:

A: 5%
A-: 10%
B+: 25%
B: 50-55%
B-: 0-5% (usually around the 5% mark, but some professors won't give a B- for a serious effort.)
C and below: 0-5% (as my Corps prof explained it, she'll only give a grade that low if she believes that you would likely be sued for malpractice if you tried to practice in the area.)

This lets you distinguish between the top students and call out the screw-offs, but the big fuzzy middle gets to stay the big fuzzy middle. Which, I think, contributes a lot to NYU's more collegial atmosphere than other law schools. In other words, it's more important to distinguish between 90th and 80th percentile than between 40th and 20th percentile. Grades have other effects than informational content, and the curve should be tailored to the effects desired. NYU's curve does exactly what the school's trying to achieve.
6.8.2006 11:13am
3.3 at Cornell? I'm a student at the University of Mississippi - granted, not the prestige of Cornell. However, we raised our median to a 2.7-3.0 (professors are strongly encouraged to grade along those lines) a couple of years ago, and it caused a huge stink. So, I can't imagine the backlash a 3.3 median would cause. Although, we do rankings religiously, and that's what employers typically pay more attention to down here.
6.8.2006 11:14am
MDJD2B (mail):
The problem art some schools is not so much grade inflation as different standards among different professors. I would favor a mandatory curve, with publication of class rank. It is true that class rank will follow a normal distribution, and that the difference between 40 %ile and 60 %ile is not as great as between 70 %ile and 90 %ile. But employers should be familiar with normal distributions and their implications. If inter-professorial differences in grading could be eliminated, then a combination of reputation of the school with class standing would give an accurate picture of how good a law student any person is. This differs from how hood a lawyer he would be, but that is another question.
6.8.2006 11:15am
I had to reorder a transcript recently - I graduated with high honors, and the new transcript showed the high honors grade cutoff that was HIGHER than my average! Thankfully, the registrar agreed that the cutoff should be based on when I went, and reissued the transcript.
6.8.2006 11:16am
Bryan DB:
I'm not sure of our grade distribution, but I've heard through the grapevine that about 10% of a given class will get As or A+s. The average grade for each class is set at 2.8-2.9; that information is published in the student handbook.
6.8.2006 11:56am
Humble Law Student:
Well, so its true. I guess my school still screws us despite the inflation at other top 20 schools. My school doesn't do class ranks, but it posts the grade distributions for every class. The profs claim that they hold to a 3.0 median for first year classes, and it's true. All the first year classes range ~ 2.95-3.05.

Thankfully, grades shoot up for 2nd and 3rd year students!
6.8.2006 12:13pm
Humble Law Student:

That's an interesting "curve". Sounds pretty nice actually.
6.8.2006 12:16pm
Brian Fitzpatrick (mail):
One solution to the problem of grade inflation is to do what my high school transcript did: next to each grade also report the distribution of grades in that class. Someone looking at the transcript can then quickly discount an A in a class in which everyone else also got an A.
6.8.2006 12:29pm
I think that publishing class rank is a terrible idea. Grades tend to bring out the worst in law students, and I found one of the more pleasant aspects of being a 2L/3L was that people stopped caring as much about their grades - most of my friends wanted to stay in a certain "ballpark," but slight movement up or down didn't matter in the least unless it was enough to move you into or out of the summa/magna/cum laude categories. Also, at least for firm recruiting, I'd guess that in the hiring process, students from School X are compared (gradewise) only to other students from School X, and not students from School Y. Things might be different in the clerkship process though.
6.8.2006 12:42pm
Steve in CA (mail):
I never understood grading on a curve. What if 80% of the class understands the concept perfectly and writes excellent term papers? Why shouldn't they all get As? What if 80% of the class can't do the work? Shouldn't they all get Ds and Fs? These questions aren't rhetorical; I'd actually like to hear the rationale for using a strict curve.
6.8.2006 12:51pm
Observer (mail):
Speaking as a lawyer long out of law school, in considering young lawyers for employment I would want to know both their GPA and their class rank. Class rank is necessary to make sense out of the GPA because of the wide variation among schools in how they set the curve for grading.
6.8.2006 12:53pm
UCLA Alum:
UCLA really needs to institute class ranking. It isn't fooling anyone by readjusting its curve- the bulk of better-performing (say, the top third or so, excluding the top 10%) UCLA Law students are still at an extreme competitive disadvantage, because there is no way to distinguish them- the school does not offer cum laude degrees apart from Order of the Coif.

Ideally, they would publish cumulative class bands - top 10%, top 20%, top quarter, top third, and top half, along with the GPA cutoff for each of these regions. This would minimize the meaningless distinctions (is #75 in the class really better than #78) while also protecting students who fall just short of the cusp (by indicating where the line is drawn) from being too prejudiced by just slightly missing the cutoff.

I think that you're correct about the refusal to allow class ranking being based on an overly sensitive sense of egalitarianism (which, as usual, is cynically discarded when it better serves the interests of the institution, see, e.g., clerkships).

I think the best description of it was stated by Prof. Richard Sander of UCLA when discussing the grading curve change, when it was still just a proposal. One of the students asked him why class ranks weren't published. The following is a paraphrase, but is quite close to what was actually said:

"It is, I suppose, a form of grade socialism. The idea being that, by fuzzying up the distinctions, you can strongly aid the poor students while only slightly harming the good students. However, I suppose that, like often happens with such schemes, you wind up hurting the good students but not really helping the intended beneficiaries."
6.8.2006 12:55pm
Ming (mail):
I should note that a B+ median still leaves plenty of gradations between students, especially when one averages together the grades in many classes.

Speaking as someone who has had to review hundreds of resumes in connection with my (top) firm's recruiting process, I can state from experience that it is not. Top law schools are like Lake Woebegone, where all their students are (or appear to be) above average.

I've given up trying to sort it all out. After all, I have a practice to run. No matter how indispensible new graduates may think themselves to be, I have more pressing concerns (like running a practice) and don't have endless hours to spend trying to discern the hidden meaning of a transcript.

What I'd like to see is a candidate's precise class rank. Since law schools won't give that to me, in the absence of full disclosure, I am forced to improvise. What I'd like to see is a candidate's precise class rank. Since law schools won't give that to me, in the absence of full disclosure, I am forced to improvise. I look at things like law review, clerkships and the ratio of serious classes to absurd guts (e.g., corporate finance v. law and gender) on a candidate's transcript. These improvisations are imperfect. Some excellent people will be overlooked. Some unequiped people will find themselves out of their depth.

The "all our students are smart" justification doesn't fly. So are all our lawyers. That's why we generally limit our recruitment to top schools in the first place. We want to know who the best of the best are, because, experience has shown that the middling top 20 law school graduate will struggle at, e.g., Sullivan &Cromwell, every bit as much as the middling LSAT scorer will struggle at Harvard Law School.

Furthermore, profligatly distributing A+ grades and concealing class rank does a disservice to graduates, leaving them ill-prepared when they rudely learn that such egalitarianism is foreign to big law firms.

Unfortunately, I see no prospect for meaningful change. Since only a small minority can be at the top of their class, the great majority have every incentive to demand a system that obsucures who's who.
6.8.2006 12:57pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
One possible solution to this problem is to report class rank, something that I'm told virtually no schools systematically do these days

Eh? I went to U-Miss law school (hello, TheWagon), a school dangling from the bottom of the 2d tier, and for some reason I thought our transcripts included class rank. I know that I sure as hell had mine on my CV, even though it was nothing too special (top 20%? 25%?).

Particularly for graduates of less-than-stellar schools, self-reporting class rank is a good idea, and I think that transcripts should reflect it to keep graduates honest.
6.8.2006 1:30pm
Closet Libertarian (www):
A few points:

I have seen tremendous grade inflation in the 16 years I have been teaching (mainly not law). It is hard to get data because some schools are very protective of the distributions. My personal observation is that private universities tend to give higher grades.

I agree that 6 grades is enough for differentiation but with a constantly changing scale and differences across schools, GPAs are very hard to interpret without recent specific knowledge.

Consistency across schools would be a great help to people trying to compare candidates. Sure schools get a reputation as easy or hard but that adds unnecessary complexity.

I was involved in one competitive search where if no rank was stated on the resume we assumed they were too low. So for highly competitive jobs ranks already replace GPA.

Some adjustment needs to be made in classes and across years as poor students drop out (dropouts can be given the lowest grade for curving purposes).

Using average standardized tests (SAT or LSAT) to set the grade distribution for each class is one way to standardize.
6.8.2006 1:33pm
MDJD2B (mail):
I never understood grading on a curve. What if 80% of the class understands the concept perfectly and writes excellent term papers? Why shouldn't they all get As? What if 80% of the class can't do the work? Shouldn't they all get Ds and Fs?

If there are a large number of stdents in a class, they are likely to have a distribution of ability, and that distribution is likely to be similar from year to year.
If most people in a professional school class don't get it, there is something wrong with the teacher, not the students. In something like law school classes, the depth and complexity of the material is such that the level of understanding and the ability to apply knowledge to complex problems will vary, and good examinations should sort this out. Similarly, writing ability is bound to differ. If the task is mastering a multiplication table, your "what if's" are credible. But they just don't apply to professional school.
6.8.2006 1:35pm
If there is payment for service, shouldn’t a student require a certain grade for the work they put in? Or demand a refund? As a prospective employer do you trust a prof (whom the student indirectly pays) to give an accurate accounting of ability? (I’m not serious, but these are legitimate questions.)

More on topic, grade inflation is a big deal, but must be done because others are doing it. I had a well-renowned history prof say in effect, “I will grade such that 90 percent of you will get at least a B, and a few of you will get A’s. You won’t have to work hard for a B, but to get an A you will have to perform as you would expect to in an Ivy league school.”
In my engineering classes, however, the curve was very different from class to class. I’ve had classes where 15% got D’s or F’s and 25% got C’s. (out of 400). I’ve had other classes where the ave was a B, but that was targeted for a score of around 50%. (He would make his test out of 130 or 140 so people who were used to a 95% wouldn’t freak out too much – They’d get an A with a raw score of 75. I’ve taken other classes where only one student got greater than 40% -- happened to be equally a problem of grading (by TA’s) and of teaching. However, in most of my core engineering classes, the curve was decided on a test-by-test basis.

While our class ranks were given (if you asked), many, if not most job placements were done through/to employers who went through the same engineering program.

And in full disclosure,
--B.S. ChE, ’03, minor in History
History GPA – 3.85
Engineering GPA – 2.75
6.8.2006 2:09pm
John Jenkins (mail):
I don't know whwther our transcripts report class rank, but we are given it after each semester on a semi-official report from the registrar. Everyone reports it on their resume (at least if it's worth reporting).
6.8.2006 2:18pm
Steve in CA,

It all depends on the communicative purpose of the grading scheme. If the purpose is to communicate how well the student performed compared to some objective standard, then a strict curve is inappropriate. But if the purpose is to communicate how well the student performed compared to his peers, then a strict curve is in fact appropriate.

As it turns out, I think different people in different contexts have different purposes in mind. Accordingly, and along the lines of what Mike suggested, I always thought the ideal grading scheme would give both the student's "raw score", which would be on some attempt at an objective performance scale, and also their "distribution score", which could just be their percentile rank in the class.
6.8.2006 2:31pm
It may be logical to assume that in a large class the actual performance will distribute on a bell curve, but that might not be true in elite schools, who select from the extreme end of the curve. (Bill James has made the sam,e point about major league baseball.) At any rate, it's an empirical question that EV might be able to answer. Perhaps by comparing exams from different curve regimens. Is this "B" exam under this system as good as this "A" exam under the other system? If, in fact, the degree of mastery of the subject is skewed in a non-normal fashion, is it grade inflation to grade that way?
6.8.2006 2:36pm
JDE (mail):
As a Computer Science grad student, I've noticed fairly unexpected grade inflation. I guess my assumption was that graduate school would be more difficult than undergraduate, but thus far that's not the case. Partly this may be because I majored in both math and computer science as an undergraduate, and the math courses may be colouring my impression of the difficulty.

My school doesn't publish grade distributions, but A's are fairly easy to get, B's are the default, and C's are nearly unheard of. My impression of why this is so goes back to a previous commentor's assertion that the 3.0 GPA cutoff for grad students makes that the effective minimum student GPA. This is especially true in my department, where we have a high proportion (greater than 50%) of foreign students. If they don't maintain the 3.0 GPA, they go home.
6.8.2006 2:41pm
U.Va. 0L (mail):
I've never liked the idea of grading on a curve. (I don't say this as someone bitter because curves have hurt me. I've been fortunate to usually find myself in the right tail of the curve.) To say that in every class there must be students who earn A's and D's/F's seems silly on its face because it says that the grades have nothing to do with your actual understanding of the material. All that matters is how much you learn compared to the guy sitting next to you.

It seems that there are two pieces of information we want to measure: (1) the student's comprehension of the material presented in the class compared to some objective standard that doesn't vary from year to year or school to school, (2) the student's comprehension of the material relative to the other students in that particular class.

Clearly, some law schools have more smart students than others. After all, law school admissions generally follow the bell curve of the LSAT (which the USNWR rankings roughly follow). Thus, top 20 schools will have more students who will be at the "A level" of the first type mentioned above than compared to a lower tier school. So, in that sense it makes sense for top schools to have a higher curve than lower schools simply because more students in each class will deserve A's based on their comprehension of the subject taught. The challenge, of course, is determining what the objective standard is and measuring it since we don't have standardized exams.

The second measurement--performance relative to other students in the class--has its own challenges. Since top law schools admit top students, one would expect them to do well. So, to measure the differences between students who "always had A's" in undergrad is like trying to zoom in on the A range and break it apart and spread it across the entire A-F scale. So, 98/100 is an A, 96/100 is a B, 94/100 is a C, etc. But, when you do that, you face the challenge of making a meaningful distinction between an essay answer that is worth 95 points versus 94 points. That's a hard thing to do.

Probably the most useful system would be a high curve for top law schools combined with class rank that somehow shows the statistical significance of that rank. (The downside with publishing ranks is that it would seem to increase competition among students and create a less friendly atmosphere.)
6.8.2006 5:14pm
brian (mail):
I hold an undergraduate degree in mathematics. Many times I have had exams where average scores were under 50%. Often times A's were under 50%. I found this in Chemistry, Physics, Engineering, and Math classes most often.

But, to bring this back around to law school, none of the native english speakers earning above average scores in those classes would ever dream of scoring as low as 170 on the LSAT. Most would score above 175.

I doubt that a serious double blind statistical test could justify six or even five grade levels in law school classes. Most likely two or three passing grades would be the maximum actual information content these grades are testing. The system described above from Yale (H,P,F) is likely the most honest, informative, and objective system for law school grades and has the additional benefit of discouraging the computation of "averages" among incommensurate entities (such as grades from different professors or different classes entriely).

If the standards of statistical validity required by civil rights regulations of employers who write employment tests (including repeatability, statistical correlation to job performance, and lack of bias correlated with prohibited groupings) do any of the professors here think they could legally continue to assign psuedo-precise grades like "A-" and "C+"?
6.8.2006 7:17pm
jgshapiro (mail):
I remember taking two classes during the summer semester in my first year of law school at Michigan (1/4 of the class started in the summer). I was convinced that I kicked ass on the property exam and that I either failed or should have failed the torts exam. Much to my surprise, I got an A in torts and a B in property.

At first I was convinced that the system was totally random and I shouldn't worry too much about it, but the more I thought about this, the more it made sense: the property professor was a better teacher and the exam was not that difficult; meanwhile, the torts professor was among the worst I had in law school and left everyone in the class confused. Yet, someone looking at my resume would have been mistaken to conclude that I was an ace in torts or that I should not be trusted in dealing with a property-related question.

I'm not sure what the solution is here. Since I was apparently at the top of a low torts curve, it seems that if the torts professor had graded everyone on their knowledge at the end of the class, everyone would have failed, even though the fault was largely hers. In the same vein, if the property professor had ignored the curve, a huge percentage would have gotten an A, even though the reason was that he was a good professor and/or that his exam was too easy.

Ultimately, whether you favor or oppose curve grading may depend on whether you think it is more likely exams will be too hard or too easy, and whether you prefer to put the burden of a bad prof on the student, or give them the benefit of the doubt that if they were smart enought to get into a top school but would still get a C or D, the fault is unlikely to be theirs.
6.9.2006 5:13am
jgshapiro (mail):
Incidentally, I lived with someone during the following summer that was a student at Golden Gate University Law School in San Francisco. She told me that GGLS purposely *deflates* students' grades from the standard law school curve (whatever that is) so that their students who do well will have credibility when applying to large firms and competing against students from top schools. Grade deflation at lower-ranked schools is an interesting counterpoint to grade inflation at the top 25 schools.

I can't remember where GGLS was on the US News Rankings at the time, but my guess is 4th or 5th tier. At the same point in time, Michigan, which was in the 1st tier, had just raised its curve from a C+ to a B- so that its students could compete with Harvard students for law firm jobs and clerkships. I guess that at some point in the pecking order (maybe the 3rd tier?) the urge to inflate and the urge to deflate cancel each other out and the schools have what used to be called a normal (i.e., a "C") curve.

Can anyone confirm this?
6.9.2006 5:21am
Although I am not sure, I would not say, definitively, that the students are better, based either on GPA or LSAT scores. GPA can be affected by grade inflation. LSAT scores by better preparation. Note that the LSATs changed sometime about a decade ago and Kaplan is getting better and better preparing students for it.

On the other hand, the country is bigger. UCLA may be getting better students simply because the number of seats in law school classes has not kept up with the population increase. If UCLA was getting students in the top 20% 20 years ago, it may be getting students in the top 10% today. Simply because population increased, but class size has not.
6.9.2006 10:24pm
biu (mail):
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6.10.2006 4:21am
Spike (mail):

Of note, does anyone have any evidence to suggest grade inflation is necessary? Is there a study showing hiring partners often fail to recognize the quality of the law school and a lower GPA in favor of an unknown law student from an average law school with a higher GPA?
6.12.2006 12:04pm