Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Grading and MoneyLaw: Is There a Connection?

A few days ago, without much success, I asked readers if there were different MoneyLaw rules for public and private schools. Now I have a different question for which I also do not have an answer: Is there a MoneyLaw approach to grading?

Grades are signals. First to students on how they did and, second, to employers on how the School evaluated the students. The problem of articulating a MoneyLaw approach is illustrated by two conversations I had recently.

Conversation one was by email. The registrar wrote to ask whether a student who had missed a month of contracts due to illness could return to class. My answer was: 1) I had no limit on excused absences, 2) Because of our curve (3.2) the student would likely get a passing grade and 3) I could not promise the student would know much about contracts.

Conversation two was with a first year student who said she was anxious to get her grades to find out how she was doing. My response was to tell her that even after grades she would likely not know. With a 3.2 curve the pattern in a 110 person call is about 15 A’s, 10 C’s and all the rest are B’s or B+. In short she was likely to find she had the same grade as 40 others.

Apart from my view that current grading is a result the disastrous decisions of the 60s generation in which I fully participated. (At one time I consciously practiced affirmative action in giving grades and tutoring. Something I would not do now even if it were necessary, which it most certainly is not at my School.) It is also a response to the implicit bargain between professors and students that entails given high grades and then being viewed as fair or “a good guy” which then may show up as higher enrollments and teaching evaluations. Curves take out of play the “grade bribe” but do not take out of play the “less rigor bribe.” By the way, I do not think a great percentage of law professors fall prey to either of these but it only takes few to create the externalities to which others react.

So, do grading policies fall within MoneyLaw concerns?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

If MoneyLaw concerns are those which aim to find the best scholars and teachers without regard for credentials, then yes, grading policies are a part of MoneyLAw concerns. I beleive I have read on this blog before something akin to: "I would take a top ten student at a podunk law school over somebody from the bottom of their class at Harvard." However, I think your post also makes sense of grading policies at most schools. The vast majority will receive a grade in the B range. Therefore, a curve of 3.2 does a good job of dividng the wheat from the chaff. A small number of students wwho shine will receive markedly better grades.

Employers like to use grades because they understand the subjectivity in law school grading and see good grades as a proxy for a student's ability to produce a product that pleases it recepient, not necessarily a showing of knowledge of a subject. There is no reason that grades should also not reflect on academic candidates for either the same or different reasons, such as an ability to produce something of academic substance (no matter how superficial) superior to their peers. I think it is no accident that schools with, shall we say, unique grading policies are generally ones whose name is often synonomous with credential. Also, as you mention, the curve helps to negate the effect of grade inflation but at 3.2 still leaves most grades in the "acceptable" range. As a law student, I have been on both the good and bad sides of the curve, however, I think it is the best possible way to achieve fair results which help to identify exemplary students but don't saddle most students with inexplicably bad grades (after all most students need to get jobs and see law school as a means to an end).

11/29/2006 8:28 AM  

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