Law School Grading Curves

Both Eugene Volokh and Orin Kerr have interesting thoughts on law school grading curves.

The details of UM’s first-year grading policy (set out below) are not, to me, particularly intuitive. The basic principles, though, make sense: we have multiple sections in the first year, and we want to do equity between them; yet, we don’t want to ‘force’ any professor to give As that are not in that teacher’s opinion deserved.

After the first year, there is no required curve for regular faculty (and I don’t use one), but adjuncts — who we presume may not know our system as well, and who also have a greater incentive to grade easy in order to inflate enrollments and positive feedback — are on a curve.

I haven’t looked at it carefully, but our first year curve seems a little lower than Orin and Eugene’s accounts of UCLA’s and GW’s; our upper level curve — to the extent we have one — seems very similar.

Some of the colleagues would justify the relative difficulty of our first year curve on the grounds that even though they are rising, our students’ average credentials are still somewhat lower than a top-25 school’s. And, especially at the low end, first-year grades can provide an important signaling role to students who should think long and hard before spending tens of thousands more on tuition.

Other colleagues, and many students, have argued for inflating the curve on the grounds that everyone else is doing it, so we should to.

Personally, I have never gotten very involved in this debate, on the grounds that a rational hiring partner in a firm will look at class rank, not grade average — and we provide class rank information. Many students, however, end even some practitioners, have argued to me that firms are not as rational in their hiring as I would expect…

Here are the actual UM grading rules, from the UM Law School Handbook:

Grades assigned in all graded courses at the School of Law are recorded according to the following system:
A – 4.00
B+ – 3.50
B – 3.00
C+ – 2.50
C – 2.00
C- – 1.50
D – 1.00
F – 0.00

First-Year Grade Distribution

Students in first-year courses (other than Legal Research & Writing and second semester elective courses) are graded in accordance with the following grade distribution:

1. the combined total number of B+ and A grades awarded in each course shall equal or exceed 20% of the number of students graded in that course; and

2. the combined total number of B, B+ and A grades awarded in each course shall equal or exceed 45% of the number of students graded in that course. This distribution also applies to first year required courses (e.g., Torts and Criminal Procedure) taught to students in the part-time division during their second year.

The sum of C-, D and F grades in first-year courses (other than Legal Research and Writing) shall not be less than 5% nor more than 15% of the number of students graded in that course, (subject to waiver for a particular course in unusual circumstances by vote of the Faculty or by the Dean prior to the submission of grades).

The Legal Research & Writing Program applies the following grade distribution:

1. the total number of B+ and A grades awarded each semester in each section shall equal 25% + 5% of the number of students graded in that section; and

2. the total number of B, B+ and A grades awarded in each semester in each section shall equal 60% + 10% of the number of students graded in that instructor’s section.

Grades received in Legal Research & Writing I and II are not computed in determining one’s cumulative grade-point average for purposes of academic probation, dismissal and re-admission or reinstatement.

It is the responsibility of the Office of the Associate Dean to interpret the proper implementation of the First-Year Grade Distribution.

Upper-Class Adjunct Professor Grade Distribution

Upper-class course offerings taught by adjunct professors must be graded to an average or mean in the range of 3.000 and 3.150. Upper-class seminar and workshop offerings taught by adjunct professors must be graded to an average or mean in the range of 3.000 to 3.350. It is the responsibility of the Office of the Associate Dean to interpret the proper implementation of the Upper-class Adjunct Professor Grade Distribution.

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3 Responses to Law School Grading Curves

  1. Interesting that the intermediate grades are B+, C+, and C-. Theories of this discontinuity: (1) An A is a superior grade that should genuinely be earned. (2) A D is a stigmatizing grade that should not be awarded unless genuinely deserved. (3) Eris.

  2. Michael says:

    Personally, I wish very much that we had a B-. There’s a whole huge spread in the B/C+ “mushy middle”.

  3. Steve Vladeck says:

    On this, as with many things, Michael and I are in agreement… As between a B- and an A-, I’d far prefer it if we had the former…

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