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June 24, 2010

Make-Believe Grades for Real Law Students

By Frank J. Macchiarola

Almost every morning, after taking a shower, I get on the scale to see if I have lost some of the extra weight that I do not want or need. I have tried many ways of shedding the pounds, with diet and exercise at the top of the list. The pounds refuse to disappear. After reading Catherine Rampell's piece, "In Law Schools, Grades Go Up, Just Like That," in the New York Times, I realized that there is a simpler way. A slight adjustment to the scale, so that the measuring starts at minus 15 pounds rather than zero, could bring instant relief. I could truthfully -- if not honestly -- say that according to the scale, I was now less than 175 pounds.

This droll reverie faded to disappointment as I pondered the implications of adjusting law school grades in the fashion recounted in the Times. Grades entered on students' transcripts at law school were adjusted upward several semesters later. The article told of law schools abandoning traditional grading standards to give their students an edge in the tough job market. Thus, each school's scale was adjusted to give the appearance that students did better than they actually did. The schools named were Loyola, Georgetown, NYU, Tulane and Golden State Universty. When I thought further about these modifications, I was reminded of other instances where expected objectivity gave way to subjective judgments. The New York State Board of Regents, for instance, has begun the practice of determining acceptable grades by assigning a passing grade to a raw score. The raw score required for passage is only arrived at after the tests are rated. Such a system allows the Board of Regents to crow about an 80% passage rate, notwithstanding the fact that the classification was entirely contrived. It has the feel of issuing traffic citations on the basis of a quota and claiming there is an epidemic of bad drivers.

The fact that this practice of grade adjustment has developed in law schools is, I believe, a much more serious matter. The rule of law, when properly applied, embodies honesty, fairness and impartial justice. The behavior of adjusting grades to conceal the truth does damage to our expectation of the rule of law. That the law itself is made to yield to the dollar is particularly troublesome. As a professor quoted in the Times article put it, "if somebody's paying $150,000 for a law school degree, you don't want to call them a loser in the end. So you artificially call every student a success." The result is a perverse version of the golden rule: "he who has the gold rules."

Law students, navigating within this environment cannot help but notice serious systemic flaws and blatant hypocrisy. Law students are routinely taught to recognize actionable fraud in many situations. While capable of interpretation, the definition of fraud is plain enough. Fraud is the intentional misrepresentation of a material fact, made to induce a behavior, and which does induce that behavior, causing injury. Law students are also taught the need for a transparency standard in many types of transactions. These are bedrock beliefs at the heart of legal standards. Yet, the arrangements of accommodation after the fact show no fidelity to these concepts.

The alteration of grades is not just a matter among students. It misstates the student's proficiency. As Ms. Rampell observes, many schools have eliminated traditional grading altogether, in favor of a modified pass/fail system, "reducing the pressure that law schools are notorious for." In essence, this coordinated obfuscation of student grades makes it increasingly difficult for employers "to distinguish the wheat from the chaff." The resulting fact that more students "can get a shot at a competitive interview" is no reward worth celebrating. Think of it. At a time when jobs are scarce and one might hope that the most capable would have their talents recognized, the excessive egalitarianism of many law schools deliberately prevents employers from obtaining information that might reward those most qualified with a job.

This is the example being set for law students whose professors so readily claim moral virtue in their making of public policy. It is a matter of record that as we have cascaded from economic crisis, environmental disaster, mortgage defaults, and a host of other issues dominating American politics, the rule of law has been treated in a rather cavalier fashion. After bad politics has run roughshod over economics, it is increasingly doing damage to the rule of law. And, if law students are educated in schools that find the concept of justice so malleable then naked power will trump the law anytime it matters.

Maybe I should adjust the scale and get back on. My weight would be the same, but I'd have the wonderful feeling of losing 20 pounds.

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Frank J. Macchiarola, chancellor of St. Francis College in Brooklyn, is a former law professor and dean at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University



Comments (16)

Frank:

This is really cool: While economists surely know how present and future inflation is created, not even we can create PAST inflation!

But consulting the Economics of Information may give us a clue: Many universities are trying to create, and have their students live off, a brand. If this is the way they go about it, they will kill their own brands, and we will float in a sea of mediocrity. The universities that buck this trend will prosper.

The market for higher education clearly works badly, but it works. Charlie Darwin will prevail.

The solution to this, and to grade inflation in general, is that transcripts should not only contain the students' grades for each class, but the average grade for that class too. Same with the students' GPA -- in should have the average GPA of the graduation class beside it.

Employers and admissions officials would have a better take on the applicant's skills.

Nealric:

I would just like to comment that the Georgetown grade increase was NOT retroactive.

Kyle Bryant:

This is a great article. I am also glad that it comes from the law school institution. There is yet hope for it after all. As a current law student, grade inflations and rosy-cheeked career center directors make me sick. Let's get past the deception. Where's the integrity?

Loyola Alum:

The fundamental flaw with your argument is that the grading scales at law schools are not based on any kind of universal or empirical measurement. In your analogy, 150 lbs. is 150 lbs. and if adjust the scale, you're only cheating yourself. I would be foolish to disagree with this point. But, the issue that these schools have been facing is that they have been calling 150 lbs. 150 lbs., while other schools are calling 150 lbs. 145 lbs. to look more attractive to law firms and other employers. While the relative performance (e.g., class ranking) of students on a traditional curved grading system ,with normal standard deviations, will give employers an indication of how well applicants performed against their law school peers, a school that has a B- median grade (compared to a B or B+), creates the appearance that its top performers are less accomplished than the top performers at schools with higher median grades. Grade adjustment based on normalizing the median is not self-delusional. Adjusting the standard deviations to create a greater number of top performers, however, would be. Based on the NYT and other published reports, that doesn't appear to be the case. Rather, these schools are allowing their students to be considered on equal footing with students from other law schools. Grades should reflect the law student's individual performance at whatever school he or she went to, and if employers want to place subjective weight on those grades based on the institution attended, they can do so.

G:

You have analyzed the problem like a law professor. However, this is not a legal problem - it's an economic one much like a prisoner's dilemma. Each law school has incentive to "cheat" by inflating the grades of their own students. If too many schools cheat, the grades are less meaningful and the system as a whole my suffer. However, at least in the short term, the cheating school and its students will benefit. Thus grade inflation is not just misrepresentation, it's simple profit maximization in a deflated job market.
The main problem is not that the grades are inaccurate. Law school subjects and grading has little to do with the mindless tasks of a first year associate. Rather, it's because there are simply too many new lawyers are not enough jobs. The solution should be to disband all law schools except just those enough to satisfy the market demand for new lawyers. 50 would be enough. The rest should be turned into engineering schools, medical schools, or prisons.
In the end, winners and losers are not defined by how many A's handed down by law professors. It's defined by the job market. As long as the market is supplied with more than its demand, there will be many, many losers regardless of how "fair" the grading system is. The greatest misrepresentation by the majority of law schools is to exist and admit students in the first place.

Julia:

Dear Frank,

With respect to your comment, "At a time when jobs are scarce and one might hope that the most capable would have their talents recognized, the excessive egalitarianism of many law schools deliberately prevents employers from obtaining information that might reward those most qualified with a job,"
how does being in the top 10% at Cardozo "qualify" someone for a Biglaw job any more than someone who is top 20%. Perhaps there is a difference between the top and the bottom of the class, but deciphering the precise makeup of the top 10% vs. top 15% v. top 20% (I stop there) is largely subjective.

In the same way the LSAT provides for a +-3 "range" to a LSAT score, law schools should provide a percent +- 10% (in class rank percentage terms) to a person's GPA.

Thanks,
J51

William:

How can you have a problem with adjusting the mean for the grading curve to the exact same level as peer institutions? How does that give the appearance that students did better than they actually did? Only Loyola applied its changes retroactively, and only schools like Harvard and Yale have been able to get away with eliminating grading altogether.

It's misleading to suggest the rest of the law schools are using a standardized curve. You know well that the true measure of a student's academic success is her class rank. A student with a 3.3 GPA may be at the top of the class at one school and the middle of the class at another.

If you want to talk about fraud, then maybe you should look into how these schools attract students in the first place. The real issue remains the "inflation" laws schools apply to their reported salary and employment statistics.

Anonymous1:

This author is completely off base. The law schools are not defrauding anyone (regarding grades at least -- salaries is another issue). Rather, some law schools are seeking to adjust their curves upward to more closely align their curves with those imposed at all other law schools. (For example, a school that curves around a 2.0 might want to increase its curve to a 3.3, which is more in line with the rest of the schools.) There shouldn't be anything controversial about this. If the author wants to propose a solution to prevent some schools from gaming the system by setting 3.8+ curves, perhaps he should suggest that the ABA mandate a nationwide standard for law school curves.

Luke H:

I just finished my first year at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. I did pretty well (3.43 on a 2.9 curve) and I'm considering transferring to Loyola. This story is giving me serious pause. I am the kind of guy who believes in telling the truth. Maintaining high ethical standards is very important to me. This move from Loyola not only puts additional pressure on Southwestern students, but also betrays a serious lack of integrity. Loyola and Southwestern should stand together in maintaining academic standards. We should oppose the rampant grade inflation at schools like USC and UCLA. Have some goddamn pride!

Preaching from the pulpit:

As the author points out, law students are well aware of what does and does not constitute fraud. There is a real dysfunction in legal education, however the author's criticism of grade "egalitarianism" (inflation) is only one side of the coin. Perhaps the more deviant side is the degree to which law school grading is highly subjective, arbitrary, and running afoul to even the most basic findings of effective pedagogy in the past half-century. It seems that many law professors are all too happy to stick with the failing tradition of myopic grading by simply tweaking the curve rather than having to ensure that the grades reflect the realities in the classroom.

Semi-Interested Party:

Georgetown Law's median GPA was brought into line with other T20 institutions. Previously, students ranking in the top 20% at Georgetown would systematically be getting lower GPA's than similarly ranked students at competing schools. Although it may be slightly more difficult to distinguish the "wheat from the chaff" than before the scale adjustment, grades still must conform to a normal distribution, so the change should not interfere with interviewee selection.

David:

While I appreciate the sentiment, not all of the schools mentioned in the article acted particularly drastically. NYU, for example (disclosure: my alma mater), added a discretionary A+ grade and nudged--ever so slightly--the curve upwards to compensate. What used to be a more-or-less firm B curve now hovers between a B and a B+. No grades were changed retroactively (as in the case of Loyola) and our transcripts, far from hiding the curve change, make note of it in fairly large print.

Kevin:

This piece makes it sound as if all of the schools listed adjusted grades for previous semesters after the fact, but that is not the case. Some did in fact take this approach, Loyola specifically, but others have simply adjusted the curves utilized in determining grades without any retroactive effect. While the goal of the two approaches is the same, higher gpas for students, the method utilized is different.

BCL:

You should see the nonsense being pulled in Boston.

“Problems remain as problems because people are busy defending them rather than finding solutions.”

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