Exams Graded!

Woohoo! Plus this let me do one of my favorite things, which is to call to congratulate the students who've gotten an A or an A+ (generally 12-15% of the class, under our new grading system).

Note to other professors who call to congratulate students, based on experience gained the hard way: If you don't reach the student, and leave a generic message that doesn't mention the grade (particularly important if it's a shared voice-mail or answering machine), say something like "It's no big deal; nothing to worry about; just call me back please at your convenience." A student who just gets an unadorned "please call your professor" message will FREAK OUT.

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.

Grading on a Curve:

A recent comment brought up the traditional criticism of grading on curves -- what if 80% of a particular class did really well, and deserves As? what if 80% did badly, and deserves Fs? why not grade objectively rather than comparatively? -- so I thought I'd repost my paean to curves from 2002. (Note that this discussion is about curves in large classes, of about 30 students or more; for smaller classes, such as 12-student seminars, the curve is not apt, though of course there's some controversy about where the cutoff size should be.)

Lots of people really oppose curves. Shouldn't people be graded on their own merits, they reason, rather than based on how other students have done? After all, they ask me, don't you know the difference between an A exam and a C exam?

Well, yes, I do -- but I surely do not know the difference between an A- exam and a B+ exam. And this ties in to some of the reasons why grading on a curve is the lesser of evils:

  1. Sometimes I draft a hard exam and sometimes an easy one. I often can't tell which is which, since they're all easy to me -- I know the material, after all! So something might look to me like a C exam not because this student is unusually bad, but because the exam was just harder than ones from previous years.

  2. Even setting the previous factor aside, I've been in teaching for 12 years now -- but many professors are new, and don't even have the data points that I have. In some areas, such as legal writing, the typical teacher has even less experience. (Likewise, in undergraduate institutions, many classes are traditionally taught by relatively inexperienced teachers.) Where are they going to get the distinction between A-s and B+s?

  3. Perhaps the curve is unfair to a class that consists of unusually strong students -- but the absence of a curve is unfair to a class that has an unusually harsh professor. And the variation in class strength, especially classes of 50-100 students (the size of nearly all my non-seminar classes)), is likely to be much less than variation in professor harshness.

  4. The pressures for grade inflation are quite real, and flow from basic human nature: Most people don't like giving students low grades, especially once they've spent many hours with them. When I have small classes that can't be curved as easily (since there are so few data points that there's a higher chance that the class is unusually strong or weak), I feel this pressure myself, even if the class is still blind-graded. And of course if a professor is known for resisting this pressure, then fewer and fewer students will end up taking his class.

There are, I'm sure, many more advantages to the curve; and I think these advantages vastly outweigh the disadvantages. Like democracy, grading on a curve may be the worst possible system -- except for all the alternatives.

Why I Call Students Who Got A's and A+'s in My Class:

A commenter to my post below wrote:

I'm curious why you decided to call students and why you continue to do it. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, but I've never heard of other professors doing it, so it does seem a little odd.

My first reaction: What a strange question. Why does anyone congratulate anyone else on some success? Because it makes the congratulated person feel good, and the good feelings are well earned. Because it's a mark of respect. Because the congratulated person is pleased and even grateful for the congratulations, and the congratulator ends up feeling pleased in turn.

At the same time, maybe I'm missing something, because indeed to my knowledge this is a pretty rare practice. Is there a downside that I'm not seeing? One commenter said, "I once congratulated a student on winning the award for second highest grade, and he said so, you thought someone did better than I did?'" Never happened to me, and I doubt it ever will; plus, even if someone reacted this way, it would hardly be a deep insult to me, or reflect deep unhappiness on his part, and it would tell me a little about the person's character (relevant when deciding on whether and how to write letters of recommendation for people). Another wrote, "I once got a letter (well, an e-mail) from a law professor saying that my final paper was really great, and 'deserved' an A+, but because he was 'not a nice person' or something like that, I was only getting an A. Thanks a lot, man. Thanks a lot." OK, I agree that this particular professor might want to decrease rather than increasing the personal touch.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. More on Grade Inflation:
  2. Why I Call Students Who Got A's and A+'s in My Class:
  3. Grading on a Curve:
  4. Law School Grade Inflation:
  5. Exams Graded!
More on Grade Inflation:

The recent discussion reminded me of Justice Blackmun's law school transcript, which I saw in Linda Greenhouse's Becoming Justice Blackmun (p. 12). The grades of the future Supreme Court Justice, Harvard Law '32:

  • 2 As.

  • 4 Bs.

  • 8 Cs.

  • 3 Ds.

But before folks start up with the snide comments, note that this put him just shy of the top 25% of the class (120th out of 451).