June 22, 2010

Why are people acting surprised by this NYT article about law schools adjusting student grade point averages upward?

Here's the Times article. Memeorandum collects the reactions.

I saw the NYT article yesterday and decided it wasn't worth blogging, but I'm blogging it now because it's getting blogged and only to say that I consider this news a huge bore in light of the fact that law students' grades are always adjusted on a curve.

It's not as if the students previously got the grades they deserved and now the grades are phony. When  lawprofs grade law school exams, we may start with raw scores that represent what we really think of them, but the final grades are determined by the school's predetermined goals for averages and percentages at the various grade levels. If the school thinks those averages and percentages are set in the wrong place and it can reset them.

It never had to do with the actual performance of the students. It was always about where the school, as a matter of policy, decided the grades ought to be. It was always about communicating with law firms and other employers in the hope of advantaging our graduates in comparison to other law schools' graduates. We're all lawyers here. This is all advocacy. Are you actually surprised?

45 comments:

Paul Zrimsek said...

If employers are really unable to divide through by a school's average grade when evaluating individual grades, then yes, I am a bit surprised.

Damon said...

There is so much wrong here I don't know where to begin, so I won't. It is not worth my time. We love post-modern education, don't we?

Pogo said...

Everyone gets a ribbon.

Pogo said...

The blue ribbon reads Participant, Law School division.

It costs $150,000.

pm317 said...

Yes, I am surprised. On the other hand, I am a STEM prof and I don't think my students can get away with talking their way to a job (like Obama did). They have to actually design/build something and make it work.

MadisonMan said...

“If somebody’s paying $150,000 for a law school degree, you don’t want to call them a loser at the end,” says Stuart Rojstaczer, a former geophysics professor at Duke who now studies grade inflation. “So you artificially call every student a success.”

What if they actually are a loser?

Wally Kalbacken said...

Will this upgrade apply retroactively? If so, who do I contact?

Pogo said...

In which law school grades become of no value, like soccer trophies for kindergarteners, or the dollar.

Paul Zrimsek said...

How long before the first law school starts paying its professors in yen instead of dollars, in hopes that the almost 100-fold increase in salary will help it attract better faculty?

mccullough said...

For as much as they charge students. it's the least they can do.

JayC said...

The problem with inflation of any sort is that it inevitably leads to a crash. This is as true of "grade inflation" as it is of monetary inflation.

What happens when employers realize that a school has degraded it's currency? What happens if other schools try to keep up?

In the end, monetary inflation leads to a worthless currency, and people using wheelbarrows of money to buy bread.

Grade inflation leads to poor students who can say "I got a 3.95 grate pint avrage"

WV: extual. The extual value of that diploma is $0.

Pogo said...

"What happens when employers realize that a school has degraded it's currency?"

They no longer accept the currency.
So a college degree becomes valueless, and a different marker for competence is demanded.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

“If somebody’s paying $150,000 for a law school degree, you don’t want to call them a loser at the end,” says Stuart Rojstaczer, a former geophysics professor at Duke who now studies grade inflation. “So you artificially call every student a success.”

What if they actually are a loser?

Then they go into politics and become Senators and Representatives and even worse President

JAL said...

AA Are you actually surprised?"

Yes.

Methadras said...

This nonsense needs to stop. Each student should get a commensurate grade on the merit of their achievements. If you do F level work, guess what, you get an F. You do A level work, guess what, you get an A. Why must there be a herd mentality when it comes to grading the group rather than the individual? Are profs just lazy or are students just colossal whiners?

Ann Althouse said...

Grades from one school are already not comparable to grades at another school. Any given school is whatever it is, and that includes the difficulty of the program and admissions, so it needs a policy for what the curve should be. If it inflates too much, it only hurts the graduates. Every school with try to get the best result it can, and the checks are built into the system. If a firm hires an A student from X school who turns out to perform like a D student, that school's name will be mud and all the graduates will be hurt.

Methadras said...

mccullough said...

For as much as they charge students. it's the least they can do.


Jesus, for that price, why even bother going to school. They might as well, just give them the paper and call it a day. There is such a monumental saturation of lawyers in this society, not all of them will be lawyers. What a waste.

Ann Althouse said...

"If you do F level work, guess what, you get an F. You do A level work, guess what, you get an A."

Law isn't math. What is A level work? Some dream I have about what some brilliant and completely knowledgable student would write? A level work is mainly understood by reference to what all the students were able to write in answer to the questions.

What is an F? It's an abstraction. I could have an idea of what's not good enough for credit, but if that would apply to half the students in the class, it's more of a judgment on whether my law school should even exist, since it's not able to find a pool of minimally adequate students. Again, the reference point is all the other students.

Hagar said...

In college, I also found that some Bus Ad courses had duplicate Econ numbers and would count as "Humanities," so I took some 400 level Bus Ad courses, hoping they might at least be a little useful sometime in the future. Two from ol' Doc Parrish, and I still remember one of them, a kind of Harvard-style problem course. Worked way too much on it, sadly neglecting my engineering courses for lack of time, and still just got a B. One of the other guys overheard me aching about it and said, "Look Hagar, he did not give any A's and only 2 B's, and you got one of them, and you don't even belong here!"

Ol' Doc Parrish was a very good professor and dean, and the country needs more like him.

A.W. said...

i think its one thing if a teacher inflates the grades.

Maybe even as the grades are entered into a computer, it gets inflated.

But the retroactive thing is just creepy. And stupid, given how public all of this is.

ricpic said...

Doesn't grade inflation guarantee an employer will at some point get a pig in a poke?

EDH said...

Why are people acting surprised...

"Unexpectedly" is the new denial.

Joe said...

If F is an abstraction, law school is a useless pile of shit. You are either teaching important things or you are not. If you are, you can test if the student has learned those things. It's not hard (unless you base your teaching on some moronic theory of learning.)

This kind of bullshit only reinforces my opinion that universities are a giant con game for everything outside engineering and the hard sciences.

Rob said...

What is an F? It's an abstraction. I could have an idea of what's not good enough for credit, but if that would apply to half the students in the class, it's more of a judgment on whether my law school should even exist, ...

Given the huge disparity of supply over demand for law graduates, this is the best possible question that can be asked.

Christopher said...

Geez, I can go along with the idea that the difference between, say, an A- and B+ becomes subjective. But there must be depths of flailing unsalvageable incompetence that can be easy to identify as an F, even in law school.

Bruce Hayden said...

When I was in LS a couple of decades ago, the school had a mandatory curve for core classes. So many A's, B's, and C's. I ended up taking a lot of seminar classes later in my career, since they weren't subject to the curve, and I found a prof who liked to use students to write chapters to his books. He seemed to have a hard time giving you a B if he later used your chapter.

The problem though is that there are plenty of law schools today, and esp. the top tier ones, that now have greatly inflated grades.

LutherM said...

I did not attend the University of Wisconsin.
Regarding Law Schools and grades - the Wisconsin Professor wrote;
"It never had to do with the actual performance of the students. It was always about where the school, as a matter of policy, decided the grades ought to be. It was always about communicating with law firms and other employers in the hope of advantaging our graduates in comparison to other law schools' graduates. We're all lawyers here. This is all advocacy. Are you actually surprised? "

SILLY ME. I thought of Law School as part of a University, a place of learning. I thought that I EARNED my grades, deserved my degree with Honors.


Why do I remember the old Andre Aggasi - CANON commercial - "Image is Everything"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpuFEpbE0d0

MadisonMan said...

If the Law School starts flunking people, doesn't that say something about the people choosing who to admit?

If everyone gets an A or B, then the Admissions Committee can give pats on the back and congratulate themselves for a job well done.

Freeman Hunt said...

I had a physics teacher who graded on a strict curve, but he didn't like outliers throwing it off. Thus, you'd get back exams with grades like 106% or 115%. I thought that was kind of lame.

Then I had a political science professor in college who would adjust the grade scale to the highest grade but didn't throw out the outliers. So if over half the class failed an exam, which happened once, but one person got a 100%, that was just tough. Even over very forceful howls of protest. I really respected her.

Skookum John said...

"The blue ribbon reads Participant, Law School division.
"

Can it be worn on a Burger King uniform?

Big Mike said...

The blue ribbon reads "Participant, Law School division."

It costs $150,000.


Dead on the mark.

Big Mike said...

Law isn't math.

Which makes me glad I went into mathematics.

Calypso Facto said...

Army officer evaluations post a "grading" profile of the evaluator on the report. So you (and everyone else) know if your "1" means you were really one of the best officers evaluated or if you were merely one of the 100 officers that reviewer gave out a top rank to. College grading should be the same, and posted right to the transcript. Is your "A" top 10%, or top 90%?

toddjames said...

Interesting article on the law schools curving gpa's upward. This phenomenon is feasible and understanding because a general bell shaped curve is natural in the grading aspect. My client, Vault offers advice on choosing the best law school and give advice on those entering the field.

Bob_R said...

The worst thing about grade inflation is that it skews grades in the opposite way that we expect talent in an elite institution to be distributed. Elite institutions (sports, schools, work) select people from the right side of the bell curve. We shouldn't expect anything about their performance to be normally distributed. Instead, we should expect that the distribution of performance will be heavily skewed to the bottom end of the scale - many more B's than A's, many more C's than B's. The ones who wash out are basically those who quit trying.

When you look at a baseball team you see this. One or two all stars. Four to seven good players. Twenty guys who are one step away from the minors. (It's the same distribution for the all stars by the way. A few hall of famers, four to five times as many who "almost" get in, four to five times as many as that with no hall of fame case.)

Grade inflation pushes the whole blob up to a B+ level. The true top students are not distinguished by grades but by awards, law review, letters of recommendation, personal intervention.

Someone mentioned grad school above. Grades are inflated there, but professors consider the thesis the only necessary measure for evaluating a student. I don't believe I've ever seen a graduate transcript included in an application for a research position.

Skipper50 said...

By "advocacy" do you really mean lieing?

wild chicken said...

Is your "A" top 10%, or top 90%?

Then someone would get his feelings hurt and the rating would have to be dropped.

mc said...

Grading is not easy and leaves room for misgiving and afterthoughts when it is not a matter of clear cut math.

I have experienced those misgivings, though in quite a different setting.

Grading everyone up, in expectation of a better university brand, can only work well for a short stint.

It's a bell-ponzy, and will leave a paralyzed expression on the face of the brand.

If the idea is such that most grads in law are reasonably well suited for most jobs...Well we have all started to recognize the mandarin bullshit, and the writing should be on the wall.

Professors who question the notions which made Western Civ free and great, who deplore Capitalism...Those same professors have struggling young families mortgaging there lives at the death of a rabbit for the benefit of their comfy tenure and self-stroking arrogance.

Who damages families longer and harder?

Corporations competing to deliver cheaper products?

Or Universities raising devastating costs while sitting on billions?

Yes, I realize professors aren't "rich" nor are they all extreme in their liberalism.

I also realize the simplicity with which I have framed my harsh accusation.

Still, the spine of my assertion remains unpleasantly valid, I believe.

HDHouse said...

they need the extra credit average points to be what? average?

ho-hum.

and all the children are just slightly above average...

Trooper York said...

The only thing worse than a journalist is a lawyer.

Methadras said...

Ann Althouse said...

Law isn't math. What is A level work? Some dream I have about what some brilliant and completely knowledgable student would write? A level work is mainly understood by reference to what all the students were able to write in answer to the questions.


I suppose in law school, A level work is displayed as a cogent and adherent knowledge of the material presented and being able to interpret either properly and work through problems and issues with reasoning and logic to back them up. I suppose, since you are the professor, that you can judge or deem their work to be wrong even after great effort is put into it. You can still do a lot of hard work and still be wrong. That wouldn't be A level work in my mind. It's not about the fact that they tried, but tried and succeeded to meet or exceeded the criteria you set forth.

Afterall, you are the sole judge of that work in determining if they are A level students or F level students or somewhere in between, but I would also have an expectation that I would sink or swim based on the merit of my work with you being the final arbiter of it's quality and grading it as such.

If students answer your questions properly or within the boundaries of the criteria you set forth, naturally, I would think you would grade them well, those that don't, not so well. I'll back off on a more absolutist point of view on grading in deference to your experience.

I do understand your point of view only because in my work environment, I take many junior level/entry level engineers under my wing and show them the ropes, give them design/engineering tasks to perform and have them justify their work as a function of how it relates to the other systems they need to interact with. There are many ways to skin a cat in my line of work, there is rarely only 1 and only 1 answer, but I know A level work when I see it and I would mentally note that as a grade when it comes time for reviews. I also have the pleasure of being able to walk my minions (that's what I affectionately call them) through problems to help them learn and understand the hows and whys of the problem and see what sort of solution the come up with. I digress and do see your point up to a point.

What is an F? It's an abstraction.

An F level student is one that isn't good enough to understand the materials of their study and apply them properly. Not doing the due diligence of work required to ascertain the framework of what a correct outcome or answer is. There may be many abstractions in the legal studies that a student must undertake, but again, I refer back to you as the arbiter and final judge that would or should know if a student has done the work necessary to earn them a grade that is commensurate with their merit and abilities. Again, you can still do hard work and be wrong.

I could have an idea of what's not good enough for credit, but if that would apply to half the students in the class, it's more of a judgment on whether my law school should even exist, since it's not able to find a pool of minimally adequate students.

Then that bespeaks the state of law schools and the legal profession, no? Best and brightest? Attrition? Shouldn't these notions apply? If that's the case by which you make the argument that it would be difficult to keep a law school viable because there may not be a big enough pool of legal students who could cut the mustard, then what does that say about legal academics overall?

Again, the reference point is all the other students.

Maybe so, but my point is that each students work should be weighed as an individual, not an average weight against others. A rising tide may float all boats, but some of them will have holes and sink too.

Methadras said...

Joe said...

This kind of bullshit only reinforces my opinion that universities are a giant con game for everything outside engineering and the hard sciences.


That's exactly what they are, in essence. Even I was smart enough to know that I could save money by going to a JC for the first 2 years on the fairly cheap instead of dump tens of thousands of dollars on a repeat of basic highschool level general ed classes and then just transfer to a university afterwards. I saved a ton of money doing that. My daughter did the same thing and she is still having to deal with repeats of some of her classes because of the scam that universities have become.

mc said...

I love Trooper York!

That's a tough call though.

Journalist/Lawyer.

There are shining examples of each, and that will have to do until the tar has lost viscosity.

Robert Burnham said...

And those who top out on the grade scale want us to turn the world over to them because they're all so brilliant?

Austin said...

Jobs reflect an un-inflated class rank, not necessarily GPA.