Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Making the Grades

The New York Times reports that at least ten law schools have raised their grade curves in the last two years. The new rationale for this timeworn response is that students need a competitive edge in a tight job market and higher gpa, however contrived, is just the thing. Ironically, by outing the culprit law schools, the New York Times has probably reversed any advantage their students might have reaped from the sudden lift in gpas.

The premise that a law school can give its graduates the edge in the job market simply by raising their gpas across the board is offensive. Rank in class and rank of law school provide much more useful comparative data than gpa, so the premise that higher gpas, all other things equal, will translate into more job opportunities is dubious. Even assuming that raising the grade curve for all students yields a benefit among a segment of the market (gpa fetishists), the benefit to students at a particular school is at best a wash. Students with otherwise lackluster gpas benefit at the expense of the top of the class who find it increasingly difficult and pointless to distinguish themselves from their peers. If everybody is special as a matter of law school policy, why bother with the time consuming ritual of studying?

Raising the grade curve may make a law faculty feel compassionate in the short run. But all it really accomplishes is to make the faculty less relevant to the market as an evaluator of relative quality. Expert faculty differentiation among students (via competitively awarded grades) is a huge part of what makes a JD valuable. If the market doesn’t perceive any meaningful differentiation among students on the basis of the grades we assign, we’ll be out of business in the blink of an eye. At the very least, we won’t be worth our current salaries.

Two things remain true regardless of the winds of grade inflation. I’d hire someone with a C+ in Corporate Tax over another with an A in (fluff of your choice) any day of the week. And, all students want A’s until the day everybody gets them.

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13 Comments:

Blogger Reconstructing said...

I'd love to see the day where we start talking about measures of good lawyering skills and equitable education rather trying to rig the same broken grades-based-on-one-test-are-all-that-matter game.

6/22/2010 4:15 PM  
Blogger eric zaetsch said...

An underlying presumption is that there is strong positive correlation between grades in written exams, and lawyering skills in the practicing world. Is this so? Are the best trial lawyers, vs. contract negotiators and business planners, those with high grades? What skill sets are overlooked by sitting and writing examinations, grade being based on that process? And if not done that way, with anonymous identification of which student wrote which exam paper, the system is open to claims the process is subjective and not balanced and objective.

Is the world in general balanced and objective; e.g., appointment of judges for example, between elections even where judges are elected periodically, down ballot?

Is it best to grade students "objectively" or is judgment, i.e., subjectivity, better?

If you value your faculty because of its diverse skill sets and cognitive abilities, shouldn't that be reflected in a holistic grading methodology?

Lawyers trained best are trained at how to ask questions. I have asked a few. Any answers, particularly well thought out ones, would be helpful.

However, the basis for grading is a question apart from grade inflation. Whatever the basis, and shape of the curve, if it peaks at A- instead of C+, that fact should percolate among hiring committees.

6/23/2010 12:04 PM  
Blogger Mikethelawstudent said...

How often to people look at your grades after your first job anyway?

Mike


KANSAS LAWYER

6/24/2010 11:15 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Marie, could not agree more. At my School we give a 3.2 average up from a recommended 2.9. One tragic aspect of this is the students believe they are that good. Yet, as a statistical matter at my school people with a 3.0 and below have a good chance of flunking the Bar exam. Yes, a B or B- student is in a high risk zone.

6/24/2010 4:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is all true.

But I wonder, as a law student seeking employment in a state that (rather oddly) requires certain GPAs for certain state jobs, (a 3.0 for prosecutorial internships during the summer, as opposed to the traditional "top 1/3rd, top 1/2," etc.), I'm wondering, how do you advise students either entering law school (you know, we don't have a strict 3.0 curve here...)? Doesn't a school with a curve offer a comparative advantage for students as opposed to schools without curves?

It seems to me that the problem is two-fold (maybe three-fold): on the one hand, you do have jobs with minimum GPA criteria for consideration, on the other, you have have USNews and the rest of the lot encouraging Law Schools in the middling areas to do whatever they can to improve on the margins in the hopes that some slight change or improvement, perhaps in employment after graduation, will boost rankings, and therefore admissions, etc.

Finally, you have a crummy market for young and inexperienced J.Ds, as older attorneys stay longer due to diminished portfolio value and concurrent increase risk exposure caused by the current economic situation, as well as the downturn in the market generally souring everyone on committing to new (though often cheaper) hires. This is occurring in both public (due to lower tax revenues) and private (due to lower volume in many private/civil areas) areas of the law.

So, what are Law Schools collectively and individually to do? Competition is fiercer amongst them, and for student tuition dollars. Opportunities for students post-graduation are dear, and J.D.s are less valuable or secure. Schools, particularly public institutions that depend on state revenue for operation, cannot improve curriculum offerings because of the economic downturn, and tenure effectively prevents freeing up "salary cap space" by laying off older, overpaid, undesrenthused professors to hire new, energetic (and productive) professors. I think given this situation, its rather remarkable that retroactive grade "enhancement" hasn't been more widespread.

Like all debates about law school grade inflation, and USNews, and the hoops schools jump through to improve images, I find the problems relatively easy to point out. I find the solutions (opportunity, perhaps, for application of game theory here?) rather vexing in the current system. As long as law schools are isolated islands/fiefdoms, as long as they are constantly scheming against one another and competing for business, they have zero incentive to apply equal standards, grade-wise at least. So you get things like Loyola's retroactive grade bump. And Loyola can simply say that they are giving their students the same advantage that students at other schools, schools that implement "strict" curves, did in the marketplace, and everyone is, at least in some sense, "correct."

I think there is a role to play for the ABA, perhaps, in incorporating standards that apply to all. I know this sort of regulatory approach would be wildly unpopular with both the ABA and with law schools, but the whole system could really use a shake up in my mind. Right now we have schools like Chicago being judged against schools like Illinois Carbondale, and at a certain point it is apples and orangutans; we aren't even talking about the same family. Maybe if the ABA began considering how schools actually govern, not just how many books are on the shelves or the faculty : student ratio during audit time, maybe recognizing that USNews, for good or (mostly) ill makes everyone's life a bit worse, but is THERE to STAY, would be worth considering.

Of course, I'm the guy who can't get an interview with the prosecutor's office because of my 2.989 GPA...

7/01/2010 6:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is all true.

But I wonder, as a law student seeking employment in a state that (rather oddly) requires certain GPAs for certain state jobs, (a 3.0 for prosecutorial internships during the summer, as opposed to the traditional "top 1/3rd, top 1/2," etc.), I'm wondering, how do you advise students either entering law school (you know, we don't have a strict 3.0 curve here...)? Doesn't a school with a curve offer a comparative advantage for students as opposed to schools without curves?

It seems to me that the problem is two-fold (maybe three-fold): on the one hand, you do have jobs with minimum GPA criteria for consideration, on the other, you have have USNews and the rest of the lot encouraging Law Schools in the middling areas to do whatever they can to improve on the margins in the hopes that some slight change or improvement, perhaps in employment after graduation, will boost rankings, and therefore admissions, etc.

Finally, you have a crummy market for young and inexperienced J.Ds, as older attorneys stay longer due to diminished portfolio value and concurrent increase risk exposure caused by the current economic situation, as well as the downturn in the market generally souring everyone on committing to new (though often cheaper) hires. This is occurring in both public (due to lower tax revenues) and private (due to lower volume in many private/civil areas) areas of the law.

So, what are Law Schools collectively and individually to do? Competition is fiercer amongst them, and for student tuition dollars. Opportunities for students post-graduation are dear, and J.D.s are less valuable or secure. Schools, particularly public institutions that depend on state revenue for operation, cannot improve curriculum offerings because of the economic downturn, and tenure effectively prevents freeing up "salary cap space" by laying off older, overpaid, undesrenthused professors to hire new, energetic (and productive) professors. I think given this situation, its rather remarkable that retroactive grade "enhancement" hasn't been more widespread.

Like all debates about law school grade inflation, and USNews, and the hoops schools jump through to improve images, I find the problems relatively easy to point out. I find the solutions (opportunity, perhaps, for application of game theory here?) rather vexing in the current system. As long as law schools are isolated islands/fiefdoms, as long as they are constantly scheming against one another and competing for business, they have zero incentive to apply equal standards, grade-wise at least. So you get things like Loyola's retroactive grade bump. And Loyola can simply say that they are giving their students the same advantage that students at other schools, schools that implement "strict" curves, did in the marketplace, and everyone is, at least in some sense, "correct."

7/01/2010 6:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is all true.

But I wonder, as a law student seeking employment in a state that (rather oddly) requires certain GPAs for certain state jobs, (a 3.0 for prosecutorial internships during the summer, as opposed to the traditional "top 1/3rd, top 1/2," etc.), I'm wondering, how do you advise students either entering law school (you know, we don't have a strict 3.0 curve here...)? Doesn't a school with a curve offer a comparative advantage for students as opposed to schools without curves?

It seems to me that the problem is two-fold (maybe three-fold): on the one hand, you do have jobs with minimum GPA criteria for consideration, on the other, you have have USNews and the rest of the lot encouraging Law Schools in the middling areas to do whatever they can to improve on the margins in the hopes that some slight change or improvement, perhaps in employment after graduation, will boost rankings, and therefore admissions, etc.

Finally, you have a crummy market for young and inexperienced J.Ds, as older attorneys stay longer due to diminished portfolio value and concurrent increase risk exposure caused by the current economic situation, as well as the downturn in the market generally souring everyone on committing to new (though often cheaper) hires. This is occurring in both public (due to lower tax revenues) and private (due to lower volume in many private/civil areas) areas of the law.

So, what are Law Schools collectively and individually to do? Competition is fiercer amongst them, and for student tuition dollars. Opportunities for students post-graduation are dear, and J.D.s are less valuable or secure. Schools, particularly public institutions that depend on state revenue for operation, cannot improve curriculum offerings because of the economic downturn, and tenure effectively prevents freeing up "salary cap space" by laying off older, overpaid, undesrenthused professors to hire new, energetic (and productive) professors. I think given this situation, its rather remarkable that retroactive grade "enhancement" hasn't been more widespread.

7/01/2010 6:17 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

this all happened with ph.d programs many years ago and eventually the market worked

7/04/2010 3:41 PM  
Blogger Ani Onomous said...

A few comments.

The premise that a law school can give its graduates the edge in the job market simply by raising their gpas across the board is offensive.

"Offensive"? This seems bizarre, until the end.

Rank in class and rank of law school provide much more useful comparative data than gpa, so the premise that higher gpas, all other things equal, will translate into more job opportunities is dubious.

Yes, unless one looks to the performance in a particular class or subject area -- like, say, Corporate Tax.

Even assuming that raising the grade curve for all students yields a benefit among a segment of the market (gpa fetishists), the benefit to students at a particular school is at best a wash..

This and the explanation that follows ignores the effect on competition with other schools, which is the whole point of the exercise. The sounder objection is that other schools are not helpless and can respond in kind, so it is arguably zero sum in that sense.

Raising the grade curve may make a law faculty feel compassionate in the short run. But all it really accomplishes is to make the faculty less relevant to the market as an evaluator of relative quality. Expert faculty differentiation among students (via competitively awarded grades) is a huge part of what makes a JD valuable. If the market doesn’t perceive any meaningful differentiation among students on the basis of the grades we assign, we’ll be out of business in the blink of an eye. At the very least, we won’t be worth our current salaries.

Another version of Jeffrey Harrison would be all over this. Why should students care? This at least explains the "offensive" line -- this is a threat to rent.

Two things remain true regardless of the winds of grade inflation. I’d hire someone with a C+ in Corporate Tax over another with an A in (fluff of your choice) any day of the week.

Assuming the students were otherwise equal? (Presumably each took more than one class, and the observation is meaningless if they're otherwise distinct.) I would happily take the other. We know that the C+ student was average or below average in that class; you'd want to hire half the enrolled class over that person. The A student grasped the objectives of the "fluff" class (kudos if you give a concrete example) and excelled, and I would bet could do better than a C+ in Corporate Tax. Unless you fetishize the substance of the material taught -- perhaps because you are hiring for a practice involving exceedingly rudimentary Corporate Tax and all the primers are out of stock -- this seems like a bad call.

7/06/2010 11:51 PM  
Blogger Ani Onomous said...

First was rejected because of length, so second try:

A few comments.

The premise that a law school can give its graduates the edge in the job market simply by raising their gpas across the board is offensive.

"Offensive"? This seems bizarre, until the end.

Rank in class and rank of law school provide much more useful comparative data than gpa, so the premise that higher gpas, all other things equal, will translate into more job opportunities is dubious.

Yes, unless one looks to the performance in a particular class or subject area -- like, say, Corporate Tax.

Even assuming that raising the grade curve for all students yields a benefit among a segment of the market (gpa fetishists), the benefit to students at a particular school is at best a wash..

This and the explanation that follows ignores the effect on competition with other schools, which is the whole point of the exercise. The sounder objection is that other schools are not helpless and can respond in kind, so it is arguably zero sum in that sense.

Raising the grade curve may make a law faculty feel compassionate in the short run. But all it really accomplishes is to make the faculty less relevant to the market as an evaluator of relative quality. Expert faculty differentiation among students (via competitively awarded grades) is a huge part of what makes a JD valuable. If the market doesn’t perceive any meaningful differentiation among students on the basis of the grades we assign, we’ll be out of business in the blink of an eye. At the very least, we won’t be worth our current salaries.

Another version of Jeffrey Harrison would be all over this. Why should students care? This at least explains the "offensive" line -- this is a threat to rent.

7/06/2010 11:54 PM  
Blogger Ani Onomous said...

Two things remain true regardless of the winds of grade inflation. I’d hire someone with a C+ in Corporate Tax over another with an A in (fluff of your choice) any day of the week.

Assuming the students were otherwise equal? (Presumably each took more than one class, and the observation is meaningless if they're otherwise distinct.) I would happily take the other. We know that the C+ student was average or below average in that class; you'd want to hire half the enrolled class over that person. The A student grasped the objectives of the "fluff" class (kudos if you give a concrete example) and excelled, and I would bet could do better than a C+ in Corporate Tax. Unless you fetishize the substance of the material taught -- perhaps because you are hiring for a practice involving exceedingly rudimentary Corporate Tax and all the primers are out of stock -- this seems like a bad call.

7/06/2010 11:55 PM  
Blogger Ani Onomous said...

Marie, could not agree more. At my School we give a 3.2 average up from a recommended 2.9. One tragic aspect of this is the students believe they are that good. Yet, as a statistical matter at my school people with a 3.0 and below have a good chance of flunking the Bar exam. Yes, a B or B- student is in a high risk zone.

Doesn't this strongly suggest that grades need not be comparable across schools? Worse schools should have lower means to signal to students who are at risk of failing the bar (and perhaps failing in the job market). If that's true, then schools that are confident in their bar passage and market strength should raise the GPA. Even if they will sometimes be overconfident.

7/06/2010 11:58 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

I feel unable to contribute further because I am never sure which version of Jeff Harrison I am at any one point or what I would have said if I'd been the other version.

Wow I have the coolest word verificaton "word" ever. "Horoutb" -- sounds like something from Harry Potter.

8/28/2010 1:27 PM  

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