By Mike Dorf
A recent NY Times story reports on how many law schools are inflating their grades in the hope of providing their students with a competitive edge relative to their competitors. For me, the story reinforces a point I have long made in internal discussions of grading on each of the three faculties of which I have been a member: The fight against grade inflation is a bad idea because it disadvantages our students. Here I'll add a few observations.
1) Grade inflation driven by efforts of law schools to give their respective students an edge is a collective action problem: individually rational decisions to raise grades eventually end up making grades virtually meaningless everywhere. But prospective employers--rightly or wrongly--want law schools to sort their students, and if not given grades, they will turn to other, often less effective, more subjective, and potentially unfair methods. The traditional way to address a collective action problem is through regulation. In principle, the ABA as accrediting body or the Association of American Law Schools (as membership organization) could promulgate a curve to be followed by all law schools, but this would be deemed deeply intrusive into law school governance, so it seems unlikely.
2) Given the imperatives to compete, one might ask why there isn't even greater grade inflation. Based on what I've heard from colleagues, I think there are two main answers. First, some faculty believe that a tough grading policy is needed to motivate students. Second, other faculty have in mind a Platonic idea of grades. Certain papers are, to their minds, inherently worth a grade of B, or C+, or whatever, and a system that converts such papers into an A- is essentially corrupt.
3) I think that the incentive effect is real, and I confess to operating with something like the Platonic view in my mind, even though I realize it ultimately doesn't make sense, but I think there is another kind of reason in play: Workload. Giving relatively low grades benefits faculty. Students looking to preserve their GPA will avoid professors who give low grades, meaning that classes will be smaller, with fewer exams to grade. In addition, with fewer students earning high grades, there will be fewer letters of recommendation to write. The downside, however, is that excellent students may think they have the most to lose from taking courses taught by notoriously low graders. Another downside comes from ego rewards: Faculty are vain and like to believe their courses are popular. Giving high grades can boost popularity. Interestingly, most of these effects operate within a school, so they are canceled by a mandatory curve, whatever the curve is relative to other schools.
4) The Times article notes that the University of Chicago has tried to help its students by using an inscrutable grading system: Students know the meaning of the different grades but employers reviewing cv's from multiple schools often don't. This is almost as good as a proposal I once made in a faculty meeting: That we should have 5 grades. They would be: A, A,A, A, and A, with each different font corresponding to a different level of achievement.
5) I wrote all of the foregoing points on Friday and then noticed on Sunday another story in the Times, this one about how high schools are now producing 5, 7, 9, even 20 valedictorians per school, due to high grades. This leads me to think that my font plan will need to be implemented in about 4 or 5 years, when law students begin arriving never having had the experience of getting less than the highest grade in the class.