June 06, 2014
Is a High Grading Curve Really News?
Posted by Christine Hurt

Yesterday, ATL posted about an email attachment gone awry at a top law school so that the names/grades/ranks of students with judicial clerkships was sent to something close to the whole world by now.  (i'm pretty sure you can find it if you want to see it, so I don't feel the need to link.)  That unfortunate event seems newsworthy, though not unprecedented.  And, I do feel for the students, who have to endure the unwanted (for some) publicity.  I would think, however, that a simple post would be the beginning and end of the story, but that would mean the story would disappear after one news cycle:  Law school official makes mistake; law school apologizes.

But, ATL "mines the data" and appears shocked to find out that a 3.40 gpa puts a student in the 50% percentile.  Um, yes.  That means that the schools has a 3.4 mean, I'm guessing.  Not exactly a conspiracy here.  Here at the Glom, we've talked about grading curves before.  (here and here).    In the comments to an ATL editor's FB post, I argued that a high grading curve was not nefarious, but the response to my defense was that it certainly wasn't transparent.  I understand that "transparency" is the buzzword of the day among the scambloggers, and I'm all for transparency, but I'm not sure who the curve is supposed to be transparent to.  I guarantee you the students at the school know what the curve is.

But there seemed to be some concern that schools didn't post grading curves onto the website.  There's a great deal of difference between something being hidden and something not being on the website.  The grading policy at Illinois is on the intranet in a policy handbook, accessible by the law school community.  Just because something technologically could be on the external website doesn't mean it has to be.  Is this something prospective students should know?  I can't even imagine that students would compare schools based on the mean gpa.  (At school X, I would have a 3.4 instead of a 3.2 at school Y if I were in the 50% percentile!)  Prospective students might want to know if they were accepting a scholarship with some sort of continuing gpa requirement, but surely they could ask about that also.  Employers benefit the most from knowing what the curve is at a school if they are not savvy enough to ask about class rank.  Yes, there may be some sense that by raising your mean gpa, a school is giving an advantage to its students over others for those smaller employers who look at bare gpa's without asking about rank.  Among nontransparent behavior, this seems rather mild to me and something that I thought was common knowledge among legal educators and most legal employers.

I guess I'm getting a little prickly, but I'm a little tired of the blogosphere reporting on regular law school activities as if they were scandals.  (Professor A has detailed class rules!  Professor B re-used an exam question every student had access to!  Law School X is closing the library for a few days due to HVAC problems!)  So, my apologies to those who prefer to be more easily offended.

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