Eliminating the “C” in Law School Grading?

Via Paul Caron at TaxProfBlog and the Wall Street Journal Law Blog, a proposal by Joshua Silverstein, law professor at Little Rock-Arkansas William Bowen School of Law, to eliminate the “C” in law school grading.  Here is the SSRN abstract for “A Case for Grade Inflation in Legal Education,” forthcoming in University of San Francisco Law Review:

This article contends that every American law school ought to substantially eliminate C grades by setting its good academic standing grade point average at the B- level. Grading systems that require or encourage law professors to award a significant number of C marks are flawed for two reasons. First, low grades damage students’ placement prospects. Employers frequently consider a job candidate’s absolute GPA in making hiring decisions. If a school systematically assigns inferior grades, its students are at an unfair disadvantage when competing for employment with students from institutions that award mostly A’s and B’s. Second, marks in the C range injure students psychologically. Students perceive C’s as a sign of failure. Accordingly, when they receive such grades, their stress level is exacerbated in unhealthy ways. This psychological harm is both intrinsically problematic and compromises the educational process. Substantially eliminating C grades will bring about critical improvements in both the fairness of the job market and the mental well-being of our students. These benefits outweigh any problems that might be caused or aggravated by inflated grades. C marks virtually always denote unsatisfactory work in American graduate education. Law schools are the primary exception to this convention. It is time we adopted the practice followed by the rest of the academy.

It is worth the time to read the whole article, because it is a more nuanced argument than perhaps the abstract suggests.  In fact, speaking as someone best described as a reluctant convert to the virtues of a required mean because of the problems of grade compression, Professor Silverstein manages to persuade me as to the bottom of the scale and where it should cut off, given the realities of the perceptions of grades.  (I remain as convinced as ever of the need to rein in the pressure at the top – and it is the nuance of Silverstein’s argument that persuades me that these are not quite identical.) Part of the nuance of the argument is that Silverstein favors – “I am a staunch proponent” – the practice of grade normalization (required mean or some form of required curve).  It’s the lack of some required mean or curve that produces  pressure toward the top (in part from unstated forms of competition among professors that always ratchet the mean upwards, never downwards, or at least only rarely so). Having taken care of that top-end problem by a forced mean or curve, Silverstein can turn his attention to the bottom.

Silverstein argues for chopping off the C grade, first, on the grounds that many law schools essentially don’t use it, and this puts students from one school at a disadvantage to students from schools that don’t give Cs.  Although a matter of importance to some law schools, in context of his central thesis about C grades, it is the less relevant argument.  But he also argues – and this is the heart of the argument – that even within a school and its grading system, students suffer unjustified internal psychological harms as well as unjustified external market harms from being classed as C students, as though it were a grade like any other, but just a grade like any other that happens to be a bad grade.  These harms aren’t really justified in more than a tiny number of cases; a B- would send an adequate signal about performance without stigmatizing the student in the way that a C does.  Silverstein would ideally like to see the following:

My recommendation is that every law school set its good standing GPA at the B- level. On a 4.33, 4.3, or 4.0 scale, that level is generally 2.7 or 2.67, though it can be as low as 2.5 and as high as 3.0. On a 100-point scale, a B- is typically equated with eighty-two, but it often applies to a range that includes eighty to eighty-three. To be precise, I believe that the good standing GPA in legal education should be 2.7 at institutions that employ a four-point system and eighty-two at institutions that use a 100- point system.

When B- is the good standing line, C grades constitute unacceptable or unsatisfactory performance. Students should still get credit for courses in which they earn a C, as they typically do now if they receive a D; but C’s ought to be used only to denote performance that fails to satisfy minimum competency. Additionally, D grades should either be eliminated entirely or treated the same as F’s.

Setting the good standing GPA at B- will substantially eliminate C grades in legal education. Under such a system, C’s can lead to academic dismissal the way D’s currently do at most schools. Therefore, law professors will probably award C’s about as often as they currently award D grades. In other graduate programs with a high good standing GPA, C grades are exceptionally rare. There is no reason to believe that law schools will operate differently, particularly since our accreditation standards forbid us from admitting “applicants who do not appear capable of satisfactorily completing” our educational programs.

The core of the argument rests on the perception by students, employers and the market generally, professors, parents, and pretty much everyone that a C grade in an American law school course denotes failure.  That’s just a fact about most law schools and the perception of their grades, so far as I am able to tell; it is not regarded as a statement of academic performance merely as such, but instead as a signal of something far more dire.  Moreover, again in my experience, the market takes it that way and understands it as failure in a way that produces consequences far graver than a simple “grade” (as an indication of mastery of the material) actually conveys. At least that is my impression as a law professor.

Indeed, I’d say the professor who hands out a C grade (at least in a school that doesn’t mandate a set number of C grades and perhaps often in those schools as well) and then says, it’s just another grade and is just a data point like any other, is probably wrong as to the perception of the signal.  As a social fact about what grades say, in my experience, a low GPA that has several B- but no C grades will often be better (i.e., in its consequences in the real world of employers and jobs) than exactly the same GPA with a C grade.  The C grade sends a signal all by itself that is independent of being merely a data point like the rest.  I can think of employers who would rule out considering a candidate with a C on the record, but might not rule out someone with the same GPA.  Since I think this is so – but don’t think this makes a lot of sense – I agree with Silverstein’s argument that it would be better to get rid of the C grade, unless one is seeking to send a signal of some culpable failure to do the work rather than simply poor performance. But if your experience of this is different, either as a professor or legal employer, feel free to email me.

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