December 06, 2004

Gradation Degradation

by Armen

I want to thank the powers that be for allowing me to post here as a guest-blogger. Typically I have my hands full over at Nuts and Boalts (ok that's the last shameless advertisement of this paragraph).

Ambimb pointed out yesterday a discussion going on regarding law school grading, particularly with respect to U Michigan's decision to discuss possible alternatives to the traditional A/B/C system. (Sidenote: On any given day I'd be hanged in any Pac 10 town for saying this, but I hope Michigan has a very Rosey New Year). The two sides of the issue clearly articulate their points. Adam Wolfson is for the change, while Letters of Marque is against it.

I'm only commenting on the issue because Boalt is one of the few law schools that has a modified Pass/Fail system. Conversely, this means I have no idea what it's like to attend a law school with real grades (slight correction in that I don't know anything about any grades since I have yet to take my first set of exams). Regardless, I want to lay out the system we have in place just to make sure all discussions of grading systems do not talk past each other about how any one system operates.

For any given class (aside from Legal Research and Writing and its Spring counterpart Written and Oral Arguments), a student can receive one of 5 grades: High Honors (HH, represents top 10% of class plus or minus 1 or 2 grades for small seminars), Honors (H, representing the next 30% and again plus or minus), and then we have Pass (P), Sub Pass (Sub P), or Fail (Fail) for the remaining 60% assigned at the professor's discretion. Here's the big bright line that's 40 next 60 (keep this in mind for later). Most importantly, Boalt does not rank its students.

A lot of the concerns about competition and stress, I believe, stem from class ranking. And even Letters of Marque notes

"I think one of the huge problems with law school is this myth. It's expressed multiple times, in multiple ways. The myth goes like this: 'Only 10% of the class can be in the top 10%.' Now, you're looking at that, and you're saying, 'It's not a myth! It's a truism!' Heh. Only 10% of the class can have a GPA in the top 10%. It only becomes a truism when you define an ordinal ranking. I think that a lot of the stress of law school would disappear if people, instead of worrying about how grades made them not in the top 10%, were to instead figure out what metric should be used that put them in the top 10%."

Here's the greater myth that even she falls victim need to know who's in the top 10%! Why have a top 10% at all? More accurately, why should the school sanction a gradation (see title for not so subtle humor) of its students? Let firms calculate all they want. Bottom line is the school's policies DICTATE that you're all equal as graduates of ______ School of Law (to a certain degree).

Is there enough of a gradation for firms to make meaningful decisions about whom to hire? Yes. Is there enough gradation for clerkships/teaching positions? Yes. Is there an arbitrary line between the P crowd and the H crowd? No not really. The line blurs...instead what we have is a continuum. I mentioned the 40/60 distinction earlier...but that's per class. There are countless (actually quite countable) combinations of P, H, and HH. But given the 40/60 line it's almost inevitable that everyone will have some P's and some H's (including HH). This is true with all grading systems, but again the difference is that there is no ranking and there is no number that spits out to put you in a category. Firms, judges, hiring committees can look and weigh each grade however they want, but us Boalties look at each other and in a naive sense, see ourselves.

December 6, 2004 09:52 PM | TrackBack

We are also unranked, although people try and figure out where they are in the process. Nobody knows who's in the top 10%, not until well after graduation when they assign Coif. So it's all base speculation -- people wonder where they fall in the hierarchy, and feel hope that they might be in the elusive undefined group, or feel despair that it is out of their reach (some poetic license here).

So, from this background, I didn't mean that people should compile a huge number of ordinal rankings; "top 10%" was intended to be code for "good at something or other". I merely meant that, given the number of people who feel that their self-esteem depends on being good at something, people should be proud of their strengths, and not feel downtrodden by not meeting one particular arbitrary ranking. Ranking, here, is not an external list but an internal set of "did I do good enough?"

Posted by: Heidi at December 6, 2004 10:12 PM

Huh, that's interesting. My hunch is that the puzzling grading system makes it harder for us to do the same internal computation (given the lack of a number such as 3.XX to compare to), but there are too many confounds.

Posted by: Armen at December 6, 2004 10:18 PM

(I would have just posted, if only to make PG happy, since I know she spends every day wishing she'd come to UT, but I can't find my logon. I guess that means I probably don't deserve to be on the marquee anymore. Anyway.)

I don't care what you do, law students are still going to find a way to rank themselves. Sure, at UT we only know cutoffs for the 25% and 50% marks, but a look at the law review masthead provides a decent idea of what the top ten percent looks like (once you adjust for the occassional blogger who sneaks on based solely on sex appeal), and our yearly Chancellor's List is practically a ranked list of the top 3%. But you hardly need that much.

Call it "High Honors/Honors/Pass/Unsatisfactory" or call it "Turkey/Bandana/Ipod/Rosencrantz", students are still going to know who's tops (as much as I'd like to believe the happy picture that Armen paints), and so are law firms. The firms can enter a tally of High Passes into a database just as easily as A's and B's.

Hell, though you'll probably never hear about it because they're too busy fielding clerkship offers to read our stupid blogs, I guarantee you that someone among the Yalies has developed an algorithm for evaluating and ranking the language used in evaluations or recommendations or haikus or whatever it is that they get there.

If we didn't care about status, we would have stayed in the MFA programs and soup kitchens that we crawled out of in the first place. I say give me the exact ranking at all times, so that I know exactly who to hate, who to feel sorry for, and who to accidentally run over with my Subaru.

Posted by: wingsandvodka at December 7, 2004 03:03 AM

Hey for all I know (and it's not much) you can figure out Who's Who of Law School based on the job offers, class seating for call back interviews, frequent flyer miles earned, number of midgets serving Vintage 88 Moet...etc. But if the school actively discourages that AND MAKES IT HARD TO FIGURE OUT (I don't know about anyone else, but I'm not about to go through the transcripts of every 1L, or even a representative sample, to figure out the average number of HH's per transcript).

Just look at the BCS, who's to say which is the better school?

Posted by: Armen at December 7, 2004 03:19 AM

After flushing things out with some classmates, I was informed that a change in the grading system doesn't alter much, but getting on Cal. Law Review is completely based on write grades. Some said this accounts for the difference if any.

It's kinda like going to a bowl game based on...

Posted by: Armen at December 7, 2004 02:43 PM

...the totally awesome essay that Cedric Benson wrote in which he analyzed the suggestion of informed consent as an alternative to property claims in Moore v. Regents of University of California? Yeah. I'd have to agree.

Posted by: wingsandvodka at December 7, 2004 03:51 PM

Quick note - this season the Pac-10 doesn't give a rat's you know what about the Rose Bowl!

And I'm always willing to inform anyone who asks about my class rank that I was in the half that made the top half possible.

Passed the bar 2 days after my last final, passed the Federal Bar (!) and here we are 20 years later working for one of the best debtor/creditor firms in Ohio.

Love the site. Part of my daily reading

Posted by: Hedgehog at December 7, 2004 06:16 PM
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