A few weeks ago, I went on a bit of a grade deflation kick. In the same day, I wrote an article about how grade deflation can affect your prospects post-graduation and a blog post on Stuart Rojstaczer's "Sweet Sixteen of Tough Graders." It was only after posting the second that I decided enough was enough--no more talking about grade deflation, inflation, or anything other topic in which grading practices are metaphorically compared to balloon animals. But it's just when you think you're out, that the pull you back in.
The New York Times blog Economix recently ran this super interesting article about Loyola Law School. Loyola is planning to retroactively increase grades by one-third--meaning that a B turns into a B+, a B+ into an A-, and so on. Which is weird, right? And not outrageously stealthy either. As Catherine Rampbell writes, "far be it for me to judge a school's grading policy, but I have a feeling employers are capable of seeing through this ploy and resetting their expectations accordingly."
Yet, Loyola is not alone. In her article on how law schools are changing their grading policies, Vesna Jaksic of The National Law Journal writes:
Harvard Law School and Stanford Law School, for example, are switching from the traditional grade and letter policies to pass/fail systems. At the same time, New York University School of Law now allows professors to give more A's. And some institutions, such as Columbia Law School, are reviewing their grading systems to see whether they need updating.
While these efforts are not nearly as blatant as those made by Loyola, they still indicate a huge change in law school grading practices.
The question--which I am not going to even try to answer in its entirety here--is why. It seems to me that there are two basic impulses behind such decisions. First of all, there is the everyone-is-doing-it-so-we-have-to-do-it-to-compete excuse, which is depressing but valid. Simply put, students with better grades will likely receive more and better job offers. The job market right now is, for lack of a better word, awful, and law schools have huge incentives to ensure that their students are well-employed. Then, there's the second argument, which I'm not quite sure I buy.
In a press release, the Loyola dean's Victor Gold argued that: "Over the last several years our students have improved significantly as measured by all the usual standards of academic accomplishment." The two standards Dean Gold references are first-year GPAs and the LSAT. Yet, the fact that GPAs have gone up is, I would argue, a sign only of the grade inflation rampant throughout the law school system, especially among schools in Southern California. What's more, when you award higher grades on the theory that this class is fundamentally smarter than earlier classes, I get confused about who should be compared to whom in the first place. While the concept of "grading on a curve" (or, for that matter, increasing all grades by a third) assumes that students should be compared against their current classmates when professors dole out A's, Dean Gold seems to assume that current students should be compared against any and all students that have passed through the doors, which is nigh impossible. It’s hard to decide whether his logic is just muddled or in fact deeply flawed.
Then we have the issue of the increase in LSAT scores for the 25th/75th percentiles, from 154/160 in 1999 to 158/163 in 2009. These numbers seem to be more easily explained by the fact that students are better prepared for the LSAT than they were 10 years ago, what with the expansion of the now-massive LSAT and test prep industry. I would also question (although without too much certainty, since I obviously don't have access to the full data set) whether or not a change of three to four points is statistically significant in the first place.
In this sense, I'm much more sympathetic to those schools who have chosen to switch to a pass/fail system (as of now, Harvard Law School and Stanford Law School). Maybe it's just that I think it's more clever: avoiding the issue of artificially inflating grades by hardly giving them at all. Yet, I also find the set of justifications more compelling. They're not the first schools to adopt a pass/fail system. Yale Law School established its pass/fail system in the late 1960s, with the UC Berkeley School of Law following suit not long after. For Yale at least, the grading policy is pitched as a part of their general effort to allow students to be more adventurous in picking courses; they also have only half a year of required courses, as compared the full year required by most American law schools. The move therefore rides on a plausible set of justifications that do not start and stop at the job market.
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