Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Law School as Lake Wobegon: The Gentleman's C Becomes the Gentleman's B

Interesting article in The Recorder:  Hastings Law Students Look to Stay Ahead of the Grading Curve; But Some Say a Revamped Grading System Would Do More for Morale at Hastings Than for Law Students' Job Prospects, by Petra Pasternak:

The number of C grades that Hastings College of the Law doles out has much of the student body in a tizzy. In a recent survey of the school's 1,250 students, slightly more than 80% of the 543 respondents reported unhappiness with the school's grading system. About 78% said it would be worthwhile to make changes -- and a faculty leader said the school is likely to accommodate them.

The Hastings curve, which applies during all three years of study, allows for students to earn 20% A's, 60% B's, and 20% C's. That, students say, puts them at a disadvantage on the job market against graduates from UCLA School of Law, where a different curve applies, or from Boalt Hall School of Law, which employs a non-grade system that bestows various levels of honors for a passing performance, and "no credit" for failing....

Although a curve with a smaller slice of C's may bring Hastings' grading system closer in line with other schools, some say that a relaxation would likely do more for morale than for employment prospects. "The curve should be relaxed because it's the right thing to do and because the students become stressed about grades," [Academic Dean Shauna] Marshall said. But, she added, "If you were in the bottom half with a C and now you're in the bottom half with a B, the employer will still see that you're in the bottom half. And changing our curve is not going to change that fact."

UC-Davis School of Law and UCLA School of Law, for example, have over the years loosened their curves or lifted mandatory grading guidelines from second- and third-year classes. UCLA School of Law's assistant dean for students, Elizabeth Cheadle, said her school has relaxed its curve twice in the last 20 years. In the mid-1990s, the school shrank the C curve from 40% to 20% of the class, Cheadle said. About three years ago, the school dropped the C quota for upper-level students altogether. Professors are still told (.pdf) to hand out 5% 8% C-plusses or below for first-year courses, though. Cheadle said that changes were prompted by visiting faculty and UCLA professors who had taught at other schools, and observed that the law school's curve was outside the norm. "Our sense was that the real top-tier schools in the country were no longer having huge C ranges," Cheadle said. "Faculty felt they were having to arbitrarily push people down to a grade they didn't deserve."

UC-Davis School of Law moved to relax its first-year curve about five years ago, to bring it more in line with Hastings and UCLA, according to Kevin Johnson, associate dean for academic affairs. (There was no curve for upper-level courses.) Though Johnson doesn't believe employment prospects have changed much since then, he said the shift has improved the mood on campus. "We used to have 10% A's, now we have 20% A's in first-year classes," he said. The recommended grading distribution for first-years is rounded out with roughly 60% B's and 20% C's.

Cf. "And to the C students, I say, you, too can be president of the United States."  George W, Bush address at Yale University (June 2001), quoted in Slate: Shining C: Land of Opportunity, Bush-Style, by Michael Kinsley.  See also Scripps Howard:  Bush, Kerry Grades Give High Hopes to C Students.

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I think another reason why they made that change that was not mentioned in the article was students mental health. We had 2 suicides last year (including one guy with 2 young children) b/c they got bad grades and a suicide attempt this year in front of the entire student body. It's hard enough for a big public school to provide good services/clubs, small class sizes, and good support structures to keep people's spirits up. It's even harder when you have one of the hardest curves in the country, which turns your students into cutthroat competitors against each other who backstab each other (which I have personally observed happen). This as opposed to being a supportive learning environment.

Yes, they are right that it probably will not affect people being recruited by big firms. Big firms have special "hiring partners" as pointed out by the article and they know what each school's policy is and ranking system is. But that's only the top 35% or so of our students. The bottom 65% of students are applying for jobs from mid sized firms and small boutique firms who do not have such vast resources to commit to hiring. They don't know what each law school's grading policy is. So these bottom 65% students look a lot worse compared with students with similar class ranks from Davis, Boalt, and UCLA. This may not matter for big firms but it really hurts the students who need help the most getting jobs.

Grade inflation also helps students transfer. For example, Santa Clara law has a higher curve than hastings and also has "A+" grades... so their gpa's are out of 4.3... one of my friends was 10th out of 200 in his 1L class there with a 3.9 gpa and was able to transfer to boalt... whereas the 20th (out of 400) student at hastings has something like a 3.5 and probably has no chance at that.

Posted by: hastings student | Feb 27, 2008 5:36:44 PM