TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Monday, October 31, 2005

Law School Ratings, Not Rankings

NormanbradburnInteresting article by Norman Bradburn (Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychology, Harris School, Graduate School of Business, University of Chicago) in Legal Affairs (Nov.-Dec. 2005), Outranked and Underrated:

[The U.S. News law school rankings is] not quite the menace it has been made out to be....At a time when greater accountability is being demanded at all levels of education, head-to-head assessments are inevitable and often have merit.

I made a similar point in What Law Schools Can Learn from Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics, 82 Texas L. Rev. 1483, 1553 (2004):

Law schools are faced with a clear choice. We can continue resisting public demands for accountability and transparency through rankings. But such resistance is futile, as a market that demands rankings of brain surgeons and heart-transplant programs will not accept protestations from the legal academy that what we do is simply too special to be evaluated with objective measures.

Bradburn continues:

While many ratings systems are deficient, those that conform to accepted social science standards can convey valuable information about the law schools under scrutiny.  The real problem lies with the focus on rankings rather than ratings. Done correctly, ratings--standardized quantitative measures--can be very effective at revealing institutions' relative strengths and weaknesses.

But ratings are invariably distorted by rankings, which use this underlying data to make a claim about the precise ordering of schools  While the law school community should stick to its guns about the problems of rankings, it needs to accept that academic evaluations are here to stay, and it should push for more rigorous and accurate ratings....

Law schools are absolutely right to complain about rankings.  And when we talk about law school rankings, it is almost always with the highly influential U.S. News rankings in mind.  While the magazine's ratings system is reasonably sound, it presents the final rankings in a way that misleads prospective students and does a disservice to law schools.  The law school community can push the U.S. News guide and other evaluations to strengthen their ratings mechanisms by, among other things, adopting a unified position on quality measures and on the methods used to combine them.  The cat may be loose, but the pigeons need not stand by helplessly.

Indeed, this is how I closed my Texas piece:

As institutions and as individuals, we have nothing to fear from the accountability and transparency spotlight. Indeed, we do our best work in the light. We should welcome the opportunity to tell the world what we do and help them measure our performance as teachers and scholars. If we do not, the story will be told by others and it will no longer be our own.

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