A colleague recently pointed me to the grading policy for Notre Dame Law School. Now I am not so deluded that I think everyone would enjoy reading grading policies, but it is that time of year when grading hangs over professors like a Sword of Damacles Damocles, and reading Notre Dame's website got me wondering what grading policies reveal about us.
While I was at Wisconsin, we changed the grading system, and one aspect of the debate was about whether grades were designed to compare the students enrolled in the class or measure their achievement against an objective standard of performance. These two views of grading often divide law faculties, with doctrinal faculty typically using grades as a sorting device while clinical faculty often use grades to measure development of specified skills. You can see this distinction in Wisconsin's grading system, which requires a curve using letter grades (A+ to F) for most classes, while clinical courses are graded on a four-cell grading system of S+, S, S-, and U. Similarly, at BYU most classes are graded on a 4.0 system and are subject to mandatory median, while certain "skills" classes use pass-fail grades.
What I find fascinating about the Notre Dame grading policy is that it embraces objective standards while using a traditional letter scale. Consider the following:
- "Notre Dame Law School's system judges Notre Dame students against a high Notre Dame standard rather than against student performance at other institutions." Obviously, they want to show their adherence to rigorous standards -- standards so rigorous that they are unique and bear the school's name. Moreover, these standards seem to exist independent of the students. (Of course, the "high Notre Dame standard" also serves a very useful function: it signals to employers that they shouldn't compare Notre Dame GPAs with GPAs from other schools. But if that were the only goal, they could just use a crazy grading system like Chicago's that is indecipherable to the outside world.)
- "No mandated grading
curve." A mandatory curve is inconsistent with objective standards, for
at least two reasons: (1) the standards of performance would vary from subject
to subject, with some subjects lending themselves to wider variation in
performance than others; and (2) even if you could normalize the
standards of performance around a mandatory grade distribution, the
sample of students taking a particular class is not random, so you may
have a class of students that is more or less capable than a random
sample, thus necessitating adjustments to the curve.
- "Faculty regard 'C' as indicating satisfactory work. Therefore, a 'C' at Notre Dame is considered a respectable grade." Notice that a "C" does not indicate average work. The phrasing suggests that all of the students in a class could reach the "A" level of performance, or that a professor could give a "C" to every student because no student's performance was more than satisfactory. What I can't understand is why "satisfactory" work would be viewed as "respectable" at a place that strives for excellence.
- "Notre Dame Law School has been relatively immune to 'grade
inflation.'" This would make sense in a world with objective standards,
but in a world of comparisons, grade inflation is the way that you tell
your students that they are better than students at other schools. If you were truly elite, you would dispense with grading altogether.
- "Notre Dame Law School does not rank students." What they
mean, of course, is that they don't calculate the rankings. This makes
a lot more sense if you were just trying to get all of your students to
meet objective standards than if you were engaged in a sorting exercise.
The implication of viewing the world in the Notre Dame way is that each class has measurable standards. My sense is that law schools do a very poor job of defining such standards. Does Notre Dame do this better than other law schools? Or is talk about the "high Notre Dame standard" just marketing?
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1. Posted by NonVoxPop on December 27, 2008 @ 0:38 | Permalink
Students are really too similar to be meaningfully sorted by a 4 hour final. Thus, continuing to sort them as such is unfair to just about everyone involved. While your post is about grading in general, I suspect that the 4 hour final is the prevailing norm—given the choice between that and pass/fail, I don’t see what merit could be found in the former. If the norm becomes something more appropriate, say grades factoring in attendance and participation, collaboration and at least a couple of assignments and a couple of tests, then grades might make sense. Who the hell came up with the 4 hour final anyway? And who benefits from grades based on them (as opposed to who merely believes they’re benefitting)?
If a school is ranked around the top 15%, and students admitted and attending typically have LSATs around the top 15%, do we really believe that a 4 hour final will further refine those indicators (that is, if we give any weight to those rankings in the first place)? Quite a bit more work would certainly be required to make the sorting meaningful. What sort of qualities does the 4 hour final showcase? I’d think personality would be important to employers, but especially with blind grading, that factor is out the window. Elements of it like tenacity, cooperation, aggressiveness, etc. all presumably have a much greater bearing on job performance and are thus what employers would like the grades to be based on, too.
Until we can meaningfully communicate to students how they’re doing and to employers what they’re getting, we probably shouldn’t try. Students in law school are the sort who take themselves rather seriously. With “the instances of students suffering from one or more of clinical levels of depression, alcohol abuse, or cocaine abuse rising from 8-9% prior to matriculation to 27% after one semester, 34% after two semesters, and 40% after three years, and persisting after students pass the bar and begin practicing law” it would make sense that if we’re going to say anything at all, we should wait until what we have to say is meaningful. Also, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to really think through how we go about the rest of the experience, too.
The quote above is from Robert P. Schuwerk, The Law Professor as Fiduciary: What Duties Do We Owe Our Students. 45 S. Tex. L. Rev. 753, 764-765 (2004). I’d recommend it as interesting and on the right track.
2. Posted by Jake on December 27, 2008 @ 11:44 | Permalink
Agree (mostly) with Gordon's post and the comment above.
Let me suggest there is one objective criterion for grading/sorting/ranking law students -- concise, well reasoned, and persuasive writing -- the skill most highly prized by legal employers, and the one that newly minted lawyers by and large do so poorly. I review plenty of briefs and legal memoranda written by younger colleagues with far better academic credentials than mine, and in most cases come away disappointed.
Good legal writing is an effective yardstick of legal acumen (setting aside the incoherent views on "language as politics" given by the postmodernists in academe). It either grabs you and persuades you that the author has mastered the subject of which he/she writes, or it does not. Whether the author's conclusion is legally "correct" is beside the point, mind you. And 4 hour law school final exams are an inadequate measure of legal writing skills. One hopes that clever lawprofs will devise superior measures that will ameliorate the remedial writing instruction we in practice must give the fledgling lawyers turned out by law schools these days.
Just idle thoughts while idling away these holidays...
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4. Posted by Alessandro on December 11, 2009 @ 6:16 | Permalink
4 hour final is nothing..I mean we have evolved yet we still use obsolete methods...I mean the whole system is obsolete...and grades are totally relative..let take this situation: you have 2 professors...1st one is a hrd uptight kind of a guy and the 2nd one is the generous type everyone likes..well the same guy with the same knowledge would certainly have diff. grades at those two...so just beacuse someone has a better grade doesn't mean he is better at something..and finals are more about the quantity of memory storage you have in your brain and less about who inteligent you are..
5. Posted by Bio_Gal on March 26, 2010 @ 11:02 | Permalink
I wonder if the students subjected to ND's elevated standards can spell Damocles correctly?
6. Posted by Gordon Smith on March 29, 2010 @ 23:47 | Permalink
Touché, Bio_Gal. Correction made.
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