June 2, 2008

"I shouldn’t get a lower grade than someone else simply because he is as weird as the person teaching the course."

Hilarious quote from a Stanford law student who thinks grading is "so subjective" and "has much more to do with how well you think like the professor than how well you actually understand the law." He, like many other law students, was pushing for the pass-fail system that the Stanford faculty has now adopted.
Stanford’s new system — which will award grades of honors, pass, restricted credit and no credit — resembles that at Yale Law School, whose four grades are honors, pass, low pass and fail. Across the bay, the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law also eschews letter grades but has two levels above pass: honors and high honors. Those who support the change at Stanford argue that shifting from the precision of letter grades to broader categories will reduce some pressure and refocus students’ and professors’ energies on classroom learning. Others worry that de-emphasizing students’ GPAs could disadvantage them with potential employers, although that hasn’t proven to be an issue with new Yale or Berkeley lawyers.
How low in the pecking order can you go before the employers want to see real grades? And how many employers will believe this notion that students will focus more on "classroom learning" if they are relieved of the pressure of grades?

It does sound nice for the teachers — I say as I glance over the top of my laptop at the last few of the 100 exams I need to grade to meet my deadline (which is today). It would be so much easier to look an exam and only need to decide if this is one I want to bump up to "honors" or need to mark with an ugly negative.


Pogo said...

high honors, honors, pass, low pass and fail.
= A, B, C, D, F

JackOfVA said...

I'm a 1976 law school graduate and the school I attended required professors teaching first year classes to adhere to 0-5% E and 5-15% D grades. Substantial deviation from these "mandatory flunks" required explaination.

All exams were "blind" in that you received a blue book with a random number identifer, not your name. The association between name and random identifier was not provided until after the exams were graded.

Are these practices still in use?


Ann Althouse said...

"high honors, honors, pass, low pass and fail.
= A, B, C, D, F"

Yeah, that's Berkeley's system, which anyone can translate. They're lower in the pecking order than Yale and Stanford, and it shows right there.

Steven said...

Four grades instead of five is not a "pass-fail" system, it's not substantially simpler than a five-grade system, and probably doesn't relieve any pressure.

By the names, Yale and Stanford look like A+B, C, D, and F systems; Berkley looks like a A, B, C+D, F system. Outside evaluators will simply err on the side of caution by assuming that an "A+B" student is a B student and a "C+D" student was a D student.

Ann Althouse said...

Jackofva, it's still blind grading, fortunately. And I've always had a required curve like that to meet. There is also a required average grade (within a small range). You are forced to make distinctions, not inflate grades, and produce a bell curve. It keeps you honest and makes you work hard to produce the grades.

Ann Althouse said...

Steven, "pass" doesn't translate to C... or a hell of a lot of people would be very upset! Honors is A, and most people get "pass," which is a B or a C. The people who are helped the most, I think, are those would would get a B- or lower. The students at the high end of the pass are grouped with people who, under a letter grade system, would look much worse. Some are helped and some are hurt in the search for jobs. The main question is whether the school's name has so much cachet that you're fine when the employer can't tell if you're a B+ or a C- student. A school's switch to this system is a display of great confidence in its reputation. Only time will tell if it pans out.

dr kill said...

Vet School at Penn was pass-fail for a time in the Eighties. They were forced to change back to grades because the majority of students were applying for post-grad positions, and other Universities didn't know how to interpret the non-numerical scores.

Students with superior grades to not like pass-fail, the Socialist sloggers do.

George said...

Last Saturday, both the NYT and WSJ ran front-page articles about how stressed out high school kids are. One story said many kids never ate lunch because their schedules were so overloaded. The other story said that 11th grade had become a total misery because of the pressure to perform.

At the same time, there's a massive emphasis in schools on self-esteem and valuing everyone equally as human beings.

It's the whipsaw effect. Work like a dog to get into a good school but we're all good people who, it would seem, deserve equal rewards for our inherent goodness.

Pogo said...

Pass-fail seems like the collegiate version of first grade soccer, where scores aren't kept and everyone gets a ribbon or trophy.

In theory, learning itself, and not the grade, should be the focus of effort. In practice, this is not the case, and competition works quite well to increase effort.

This same failure to recognize the benefits of competition is what dooms socialism as a mechanism for economic distribution. Both pass-fail and socialism rely on what people should be like (love of learning for its own sake is a superior motivation than getting an A) than what people are actually like (people like the opportunity to do better than others ).

Pass-fail, like its economic sibling, tends to induce less effort to the selected task (here, on schoolwork), and more directed towards those rewards that still remain.

rhhardin said...

If I got a D in high school, it was no TV until it improved.

I can tell you, it teaches you very fast to get along without TV. That's the lasting legacy of letter grades.

Saul said...

Grades like elections are imperfect. However, the premise that the weird students do well with the weird professor, and therefore there should be no grades is flawed. As an attorney, you'll have "weird" judges, clients, and adversaries, so art does imitate life, and being able to advocate to a particular individual or individuals is a skill.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

At least they haven't stooped to the level of "group grades" as they tried to do in my daughter's high school.

Get a group of kids together to do a project. Let most of the kids slack off because they just don't care and know that one or maybe two of the kids (my daughter) do care and want to get good grades for college acceptance, will do ALL the work. She gets an A and so do all the slackers. Fair?

First time that happened several parents (obviously of the kids who were doing the project alone) went to the superintendent of the school and said that there will be no more participation in "group grades".

As an aside and I know this sounds contradictory, I object to an artificial forced bell curve in a classroom setting. The curve can be skewed by having a in a classroom a larger representation of people who would normally/statistically fall on the right side of the curve in the complete universe or sampling of students. Forcing students who would normally fall on the peak (mid range of the curve) to the left (lower grades) because they were unlucky enough to be in a classroom with a larger sampling of higher scoring students, seems unfair. I think the students should be scored on how well they did on the exam, how well they learned the material, and not how well they did in their small peer group sample.

MadisonMan said...

As an attorney, you'll have "weird" judges, clients, and adversaries, so art does imitate life, and being able to advocate to a particular individual or individuals is a skill.

Just appeal up the legal chain until you get a judge who resonates with your particular vibe! Problem solved.

Henry said...

When I taught freshman art classes as a grad student, I hated grading. Most students were average, some where better than average, and some were idjits that missed half the classes or failed to complete assignments.

An honors, pass, fail system would have made grading much easier and perfectly fair, in my opinion.

As it was, I hated decided between an A and A- or between an A- and B+. Those distinctions usually marked the difference between "worked hard and had innate talent" and "worked hard and had innate competence."

Trooper York said...

Mr. Michael Woodman: Kotter, these kids couldn't pass a blood test without cheating.
(Welcome Back Kotter, 1975)

John said...

I would just tell these privileged little whiners that if they think dealing with eccentric law professors is hard, wait until they deal with judges. Part of growing up professionally is learning how to understand and empathize with people with whom you don't agree. Being able to do that is essential to being an effective attorney. There are a lot of crackpot judges out there who have some real daft understanding of the law. Fighting the good fight and telling them how wrong they are doesn't do your client much good. The ability to understand an argument and frame it in a way that appeals to someone who thinks completely the opposite of you is an essential skill that should be taught in law school. This is law school not philosophy. The ability to "write for the teacher" is essential for any practicing lawyer. I think if I were interviewing graduates from Stanford, the first question I would ask would be their position on this issue. If they said they supported pass/fail, I would end the interview and ask them to leave and not come back.

Chet said...

Is this about teaching or judging?

Why not just play Santa Clause and give everybody a 'pass' ?

The bad karma that results from destroying someone's life with an unflattering grade, is worse than to just pass everybody and let God handle the lack of achievement.

Do I sound like someone who's received bad grades ?

Pogo said...

let God handle the lack of achievement.

And on earth, when achievement is unrewarded, you get less of it. If merit receives the same pay as non-merit, why do the work?

Incentives matter.

Mark said...

It has always seemed to me that law school grading was much more aimed at selecting for law school faculty than for selecting lawyers. Half of all lawyers were below average law school students. Most employers don't really need (or even want) the level of detail the law schools provide. Generally, the grade is used as a surrogate for being able to write.

The grading system seems to only be relevant to a few elite firms and schools and for a few elite (mostly clerking) jobs. Even there, grades become mostly irrelevant after your first job. The only place where it seems people want to know your grades long after you were out of school is on law school faculties.

What would be nice would be to have a better handle on writing skills than the current system affords. something like a pass/fail for legal knowledge and a rating of 1-10 for the quality of the written work might work.

BTW, having graded a few classes myself, i always wished I could grade that way. I chafed at giving a better grade the some turgid prolix POS that hit more legal points than a well-reasoned lucid discussion that hit only the main idea. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to do so since I saw the grade as measuring legal knowledge rather than writing.


Christy said...

I took most of my liberal arts courses with the option of pass/fail. (This was back before gradations of pass.) I'd knock out enough work in the first couple or three weeks to ensure a pass and could then devote my time to the engineering courses that did matter to me. On the other hand, I'd have been outraged to have had to settle for a pass in those courses.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

"Nonetheless, I felt compelled to do so since I saw the grade as measuring legal knowledge rather than writing."

Well....duh. A test in English writing grades writing skills. A class in math grades competence in math.

And while I agree wholeheartedly with you that writing skills are important; to grade on those skills when the test is on some other topic wouldn't be fair unless it has disclosed that that is also a part of the grade.

A good avenue might be to take the student aside and explain the importance of being able to communicate not just verbally but also in written format and suggest a remedial English class. Or, in other words, you can be smart, know the subject but still look like an uneducated idiot if you can't write and people will be reluctant to hire you.

former law student said...

For all but the top schools, grades are important to big law firms selecting their summer associates. Schools below the top are a sort of "opportunity" school, where unpromising material may yet demonstrate their potential, and rise into the top ten percent of the class. For top schools, the entire class is presumed to be of the same quality as the top ten percent of the lesser schools, so further subdivision is not necessary.

But it would be interesting to hear from Ann how she modulated her test taking technique to the various professors she had, because she obviously did quite well. I doubt her success was due to her being equally weird.

lurker2209 said...

I wish I could give all of my chem lab students a pass instead of letter grades. Actually, we don't even have letter grades, just a 4.0 to 0.0 scale, so you have to distinguish between the 3.3's and the 3.4's, somehow. For a lab class this is really silly, since most of the students complete the labs satisfactorily, a few blow it off and deserve to fail, and a handful work really hard and very carefully and get 90% yield on all their reactions.

chuckR said...

When I was getting my engineering degrees, I once took a liberal arts course pass/fail.

I felt dirty afterwards.

JonMichael S said...

More perspective from fellow UW educator Jordan Ellenberg: http://www.slate.com/id/2071759/

matthew said...

ANY system has to be better than the old UW Law School system that I went to law school with. As Ann's well aware the grades were as follows.

Each person is given a number between 65 and 95, where the average of the bell curve is at around an 83 - Failing is below a 70, yet an 87 average graduates cum laude.

Good luck explaining that one to potential employers! I only wish I was making that system up...

Revenant said...

Get a group of kids together to do a project. Let most of the kids slack off because they just don't care and know that one or maybe two of the kids (my daughter) do care and want to get good grades for college acceptance, will do ALL the work. She gets an A and so do all the slackers. Fair?

Of course not, but is that anything new? I got stuck being the one productive student in a group of slackers several times in junior high and high school, and that was over twenty years ago.

Ann Althouse said...

Matthew: We've switched to letter grades.

dick said...

I rather liked the grading system where I went to college. You actually received 2 grades in each course. One was on the subject matter of the course while the other was in your use of English in the course. The English was on a pass/fail basis and if you did not do well on the English usage you did not graduate. You were expected to be able to know your subject and explain it in language. Made perfect sense to me, especially after I graduated and saw how badly some students write.

Chip Ahoy said...

Ugly negatives. Now there's a concept.

*You suck

*Hope you're never a layer for anybody I know.

*How'd you get into law school, anyway?

*Good luck landing a job, Foo.

*Have you considered interior design?

*Wutzyer name again?

*FAIL! I love that word.

*Good luck chasing ambulances.

*English a second language?

*HAHAHA, That's a good one!

*I never cared for you much, now I get to say so.

*How long do you intend to keep at this before giving up?

*You might want to try reading a few cases.

TMink said...

Seems to me the real problem is that you are grading a room full of lawyers!


Who would be more contentious and troublesome than them?


Steven said...

Hmm. Well, if that's how they're intended to be interpreted, I guess that's how they're intended.

But I know that if I saw any "pass" grades on a transcript, I'd assume they were Ds, barring personal familiarity with how the school operates. Oh, if there were a "low pass" or a "restricted credit" mentioned on the transcript, I'd consider that the D and then evaluate the "pass" as a C.

It seems to me the students supporting the consolidated systems are betting an awful lot on people doing hiring bothering to familiarize themselves with the systems.

Beldar said...

I was heavily involved in recruiting -- first for Baker Botts, then for Weil Gotshal & Manges -- for over 10 years. Yale was among the least satisfactory places to recruit precisely because there were so few differentiating factors among the students' law school performances. And if you think we were automatically going to extend offers to every candidate, or even most of them, even at a top-ranked school like Yale, you're very wrong.

The descriptions I've read of Stanford's decision describe it as being the result of discussions between faculty and students. Collectively, they're thumbing their noses at the reason either faculty or students exist: Employers.

This is a profoundly stupid move that will end up disadvantaging far more Stanford students in the job market than it helps.