Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Do law school grades mean anything?

This morning's New York Times has a front-page article (here) about law schools raising their curves to make their students more attractive as job applicants.  (Hat tip to Scott Unger and my dad.)

That change reminds me of Ellen Degeneres's routine about the difference between "upright" and "reclined" on airplane seats (here).  We can call something whatever we want, but that doesn't change the nature of the thing.  Even if the curve goes higher (say, a curve around a B+ instead of a B-), it's still an ordering of all of the people in the course.

Curved grades tell people how a given person did on a given exam on a given day, compared to the other people who took the exam that day.  It's rather like George Carlin's old joke about partial scores in sports ("Notre Dame, 6").  It's information, but it's not complete information.

Employers use grades and the U.S. News rankings of schools because they believe that those two data points are approximations of how "good" the job candidates are, even though grades are actually not such a good shadow variable.  Very few clients ask their lawyers to answer hypotheticals for three hours.  There are a lot of the intangibles that make a good lawyer good, such as common sense, emotional intelligence, and teamwork, and grades don't necessarily correlate with those characteristics.  I keep telling employers that taking a little more time on the front end (for example, by asking job candidates to talk about how they'd approach a particular situation) would pay off in the long run (retention of good candidates).

But until employers are willing to spend more time looking at more than mere transcripts, I can understand how tempting it is to raise a school's curve.

Why not go all the way, though?  Some schools make it downright difficult to get anything but As.  Playing with curves is just the start of something big--why not grade for mastery instead of for comparison purposes?  Instead of curving grades, establish clear standards for what performance would constitute an A, what lesser performance would earn a B, etc.  Then grades might actually be useful to the outside world.

In the meantime, folks might want to read Dan Keating's article on grades:  Daniel Keating, Ten Myths About Law School Grading, 76 Wash. U. L.Q. 171 (1998).  It's a fun read.

Update (6/25) (hat tip to my buddy Seymour Serebnick):  see the NYT's letters to the editor about the original story here.

1 comment:

Legally UnBound said...

NO...easy question.