Friday, April 20, 2007

Grade Inflation and Gum on the Sidewalk

Like most others I dislike the way that USN&WR has become the tail that wags deans, faculties, and law schools. On the other hand, the rankings do have a karma-like function.

For example, law schools have gradually raised grading curves. One argument, apparently true although it speaks volumes about law firm hiring practices, is that high grades make graduates more competitive in the job market. So take a C student call him or her a B student, as many law schools have done, and job prospects go up. Students have better job prospects and higher placement rates mean higher USN&WR rankings. I have not tracked it but I wonder if any school’s placement rate has gone up as a result of changing the curve. My hunch is that since most schools have done this, everyone just stays in place and placement rates stay the same. So, at best the increased grades provide a temporary and false sense of well-being for students before they face the reality.

On the other hand, unless adjustments are made elsewhere, higher grades mean fewer students are on academic probation. Today’s C+ student would have failed out a few years ago or have been identified as at risk and given assistance. Now fewer fail out and fewer are identified as being at risk. In a sense, giving into the demand for higher grades means undercutting the students who are most in need of a school’s attention.

Plus, if more admitted students end up graduating and taking the bar, it stands to reason that more will fail it. I do not know whether this is true. As an empirical matter and it would take a complicated study to isolate the relationship between grade inflation alone and bar passage rates. Even so, higher grades seem to do nothing to increase placement and may mean that actual percentage placement decreases (or becomes more expensive to maintain) because a higher percentage of graduates fail the bar exam. Plus, bar passage rates independently also have an impact on USN&WR rankings supposedly further devaluing the degree.

Like tossing your gum out on a sidewalk, handing out and demanding cheap grades may bring negative consequences.

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