December 26, 2008
Law School Grading Redux
Posted by Gordon Smith

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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