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NYU Law School's New Curve:
See it here, at Leiter's. As best I can recall, NYU's requirement that professors cannot give more than 5% of the class a C+ or below has been in place for a number of years. I don't know about the B- grades, though, which are limited under the new curve to 4-8% of the class. The overall curve is somewhat more generous than what most schools use, mostly because the bottom of the class is treated unusually generously: In a class of 100, only 4 people are required to get grades of B- and everyone else can get a B or higher. (Of course, whether that happens depends on whether professors "max out" the curve, which may or may not be common --I don't know.)
ForWhatItsWorth:
Unless you happen to have a conservative bent, right? Then it is a guaranteed F or incomplete :) :)
12.4.2008 2:35pm
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
And the purpose of grades would be...?
12.4.2008 2:42pm
Patent Lawyer:
ForWhatItsWorth-

Hardly. I was an open conservative at NYU, and had a solidly above average (if not Law Review-level) GPA. My only politically negative experience was a nasty run-in with a Lawyering prof who was both former ACLU and a terrible teacher.

If I remember the old system correctly, the main difference isn't on the low end, but the high end--there'll be more As, A-s, and B+s, and a little less of the former "everyone gets a B" policy, which I consider to be less a matter of grade inflation and more a matter of better separating the class. The old NYU grade distribution, with regularly >50% Bs, was extremely flat.
12.4.2008 2:43pm
OrinKerr:
ForWhatItsWorth:

When I was a law student, I generally found it advantageous to write "leftist" exams for professors who had a strong left orientation. When I took American legal history, for example, my exam was all about the centrality of the class struggle between the oppressed workers and the owners of the means of production. The grading is blind, so the professor can't tell if you're saying what you really think. And the enterprise struck me as pretty good preparation for legal practice: When representing a client and trying to persuade a judge, you pick arguments that will persuade the judge rather than arguments that you personally find persuasive but that the judge won't.

Anyway, I got an A+ in American legal history.
12.4.2008 2:46pm
ASlyJD (mail):
Hmm . . . I wonder if I can convince my third tier law school to stop fixing the class median at a B-. After all, we have to stay competitive and imitate all these high ranked schools!
12.4.2008 2:48pm
hawkins:
What is GW's curve?
12.4.2008 3:01pm
Aultimer:
I always imagined Lake Woebegone (where all the children are above average) to be farther west than Manhattan.
12.4.2008 3:13pm
Oren:
Orin, in that case the law school system discriminates against liberals by giving them poor preparation.
12.4.2008 3:35pm
David Walser:
I hate grading on a curve. It's fundamentally wrong. While it may be true that for the population of law students X% should get a grade of C, a class is only a sample of that population and it's wrong to impose the characteristics of a population on to a sample. Suppose an elective class only attracts 10 students, including the 3 best students in the entire school. All three do their best work and perform in a truly exceptional manner. Why is it that only one can receive an A? It just doesn't make sense.

I understand the purpose of a grade curve. It's a very difficult and, at times, distasteful job to evaluate students' performance. Teachers are reluctant and sometimes not very good at that task. Still, shouldn't we define what is A, B, and C quality work and expect teachers to do their job?
12.4.2008 3:44pm
ForWhatItsWorth:
Patent Lawyer, I have to ask.... when did you attend? I haven't been there, but I know a few who have and they had to do as Orin did...... seriously.

One young man in particular, who happens to have been a student at a college prep I am regularly asked to teach (astrophysics), went on to NYU and had a fair number of nasty "political" run-ins. To survive, he had to do exactly as Orin said.

On the plus side, he made it, went on to some other schools and passed the bar in 3 states, AZ being the latest. He is now in the process of becoming a JAG officer. Great guy!
12.4.2008 3:44pm
ForWhatItsWorth:
Oren...... HILARIOUS! GOOD ONE! I'll have to mention that to my aforementioned graduate :)
12.4.2008 3:46pm
NYUprospective:
David,
The NYU policy doesn't appear to limit the number of As in a small class (such as the 10 person example you gave). So, while imposing the characteristics of the population on an individual sample can be troublesome, it looks as though the policy only applies to relatively large samples of 28 or more where the deviation should substantially affect any student.
12.4.2008 3:54pm
NYUprospective:
<-- the last sentence should read "where the deviation should NOT substantially affect any student."
12.4.2008 3:55pm
Meh Neh:
Suppose an elective class only attracts 10 students, including the 3 best students in the entire school. All three do their best work and perform in a truly exceptional manner. Why is it that only one can receive an A? It just doesn't make sense.

As I recall, my law school had a policy whereby if the average GPA of a given class was above the school-wide median, then the class median could be recentered to the class average. Also, seminars had a higher median than lecture courses to account for the fact that better students often took more seminars. The result was that when I found myself in a twelve person seminar and nine of the students were on law review (which happened to me at least twice) it was still possible to get the equivalent of an A or an A- by producing a seminar paper of similar quality to the exams that earned me As or A-es in much larger survey classes.
12.4.2008 3:57pm
OrinKerr:
David Walser,

One problem with saying "shouldn't we define what is A, B, and C quality work" is that how students do is highly contingent on what and how professors teach. If I'm a great teacher, students will write great exams; if I'm a terrible teacher, students will write terrible exams. Why should students suffer twice from having bad professors?
12.4.2008 4:08pm
Patent Lawyer:
ForWhatItsWorth-

Just graduated in May '08. I was openly conservative in class discussions, and generally stayed apolitical on exams. The only exam I remember well with a definite political tone was an Admin class where one question required commenting on an excerpt from Breyer's "Active Liberty". Even in the Employment &Housing Discrimination clinic I took 3L year, I openly stated that I was a McCain-voting Republican and expressed skepticism towards the majority of sexual harassment claims. My grade didn't suffer from it. Granted, it probably helped that the vast majority of my classes were IP-related and therefore apolitical.

Note for others--the NYU curve didn't apply to seminars and clinics while I was there, and presumably still doesn't. Only to lecture classes, typically with at least 40 students.

Also, while I'm here--one of the justifications for the older flat curve was that it increased collegiality among NYU Law students. The sort of cutthroat nastiness that you might hear about at Harvard never came into play at NYU, and students shared notes and outlines freely because there was no real separation at the bottom of the class. If you studied sufficiently and were reasonably competent by NYU standards, you'd get a B. No need to fight tooth and nail to avoid a career-harming C or D.
12.4.2008 4:15pm
ForWhatItsWorth:
I know.... three posts in a row is a bit much.... but

David Walser, I couldn't agree more. Grading on a curve has some negatives that I don't believe many instructors/professors really notice, either. I authored and taught a rather formidable and fast-paced course later in my military career. As part of that, of course, job task analysis and such had to be performed. In addition, I had to decide how I was going to grade the course. After much head-knocking, I settled on a straight grading system based upon the tests.

That sounds simplistic, but wait. By "basing on tests," I mean that each question I asked counted as a single point. I looked at each separate test as being a subset of the WHOLE test (the sum total of all the questions asked in the course of instruction). So I could have 50 tests, lets say, with a variable number of questions, but at the end of the course, the total would equal 1200 questions asked. The number of those answered correctly, along with labs, etc (scored the same way), was the final score determination.

This had several advantages. You could get a 90 on a 10 question test and a 70 on a 100 question test, but the average would NOT be 80. If no question is worth anymore than any other (and should they be? If you ask it, it should be important, right?). Instead, the average would be based upon the total of 110 questions and the number answered correctly. This prevented the skewing, positive or negative, of an average just because of the number of questions on a particular test. I think you get the picture.

But there was one other, less obvious advantage. If you grade on a curve, gathering statistics on each test question answered is difficult. In my case, since a question was a point (with essay type questions having multiple points, but each point tied to a very specific thing that the student was expected to discuss), keeping those stats was very easy. In fact, it was a natural outcome of the way I graded. Why would I care about those stats?

Easy! With those stats, I was able to determine "bad questions" that needed to be clarified. For example, if 90 percent of the people in your class answer a question wrong, there are reallyu only two possibilities.... (1) I didn't teach the material or taught it incorrectly OR (2) the test question has a distractor that is inappropriate or the question just sux! The same applied the other way around, if a consistent 100 percent or 90 percent of people answered a question correctly, I would suspect that it was either worthless or I wasn't challenging them enough. I "could" say that I was a "marvelous" instructor, but let's get real....... If I am that marvelous, then I need to challenge my students further.

In my case, if a test question was answered correctly around 80 percent of the time (plus or minus a few percent), then it was probably just fine. That doesn't mean you cannot refine the course and tests, but it does mean you are probably pretty close to right on the money.

That was just a couple of the advantages...... but one more advantage I liked was that the students knew, by the minute, exactly how well or poorly they were doing. A sudden "surge" in someone's score (like they are starting to really "get it") didn't impact everyone else in the class...... it just impacted the person who surged.

To the profs here...... whaddaya think? It may not work as well in a law school. I don't know that questions can be tied to very specific goals in law....... at least, goals that would be readily recognized by the prof and scorable in the fashion I mentioned. But for some classes, it beats the living heck out of "curves."
12.4.2008 4:19pm
Ben P:

While it may be true that for the population of law students X% should get a grade of C, a class is only a sample of that population and it's wrong to impose the characteristics of a population on to a sample. Suppose an elective class only attracts 10 students, including the 3 best students in the entire school. All three do their best work and perform in a truly exceptional manner. Why is it that only one can receive an A? It just doesn't make sense.


For what it's worth, my school solves this problem by only *requiring* (the requirement is pretty soft in any case) professors to curve grades in classes that have more than 20 students.

The best professors write exams that curve out well anyway, however, in practice the only classes that have a rigorous curve are the 1L classes, Constitutional Law and the various bar exam subject classes. (Decedents estates, Domestic Relations, Negotiable Instruments etc)

It's not a perfect solution, but it seems a good one to me.


However, as a student at a school that does not have anywhere near such a generous grading curve, I'm a bit put out by NYU requiring that professors give only 5% of their class something that was more or less akin to our classes average GPA after first year. (As I recall our class's average GPA after the first year was a mid 2.something, A mid 3.something was enough to get me on law review.)
12.4.2008 4:32pm
Casual Peruser:
As a recent Harvard graduate, I am constantly amazed by the caricature that student life is marked by "cutthroat nastiness" and the like. I suffered no dearth of colleagues willing to share thoughts, outlines, notes, and other study aids. A student group even operated a website containing an outline bank with years of old study aids for any interested student to peruse. There was a sense that we were all in this together, for better or for worse. Given the enormous size of each class, the sense of community was impressive.
12.4.2008 4:36pm
Ben P:

Easy! With those stats, I was able to determine "bad questions" that needed to be clarified. For example, if 90 percent of the people in your class answer a question wrong, there are reallyu only two possibilities.... (1) I didn't teach the material or taught it incorrectly OR (2) the test question has a distractor that is inappropriate or the question just sux! The same applied the other way around, if a consistent 100 percent or 90 percent of people answered a question correctly, I would suspect that it was either worthless or I wasn't challenging them enough. I "could" say that I was a "marvelous" instructor, but let's get real....... If I am that marvelous, then I need to challenge my students further.


My civil procedure professor first year used just such a system and tested predominately using multiple choice questions. (He also happens to write multiple choice bar exam questions)

Further, he would publish the results at the end of the semester with the number of students that got each question right and wrong and averages for the whole class.

The clarity of such a system is very impressive.
12.4.2008 4:38pm
Uh_Clem (mail):
When I used to teach intro calculus, the math department saw the definition of C == AVERAGE and took it literally. The average grade for the entire class had to be a C. Basically, for ever A I had to give an F, and for ever B I had to give a D. (not precisely true, but it gives you the idea).

We Math TA's were not very popular...
12.4.2008 4:44pm
David Walser:

One problem with saying "shouldn't we define what is A, B, and C quality work" is that how students do is highly contingent on what and how professors teach. If I'm a great teacher, students will write great exams; if I'm a terrible teacher, students will write terrible exams. Why should students suffer twice from having bad professors?

The problem is that grades serve multiple purposes. They tell students and prospective employers how a student compares to other students and how well a student mastered the course material. If a lousy teacher gives the best student in class an A -- even though the student barely understands the rudimentary elements of the subject -- prospective employers may be mislead into believing the student has knowledge and skills the student does not have. Even the student may be mislead in this manner.

The curve does tell us how well the student compares with other students taking the same class. Even there, the information can be very misleading. An A in Professor Smith's morning session of "An Introduction to Contracts" may equate with a C in the afternoon session of the same course -- depending on the make up of the students attending each session. So, a curve may tell a student how they did compared to a very small subset of the school, but it does not tell them how well they are doing against the school as a whole nor does it tell them how well they mastered the material.
12.4.2008 4:48pm
OrinKerr:
Oren writes:
Orin, in that case the law school system discriminates against liberals by giving them poor preparation.
Discrimination usually implies intent, and obviously there is no intent here. But I do tell students that it will help their education to take classes from professors that disagree with them. The more professors disagree with them, the more the professors are likely to make students step out of their views and try to learn the worldview of another. That's a very valuable exercise for a lawyer, I think.
12.4.2008 4:54pm
Ex parte McCardle:
Here's a kind of flip-side of this, according to my father: in the Bad Ol' Days at Georgia Tech when he was there in the mid-50's, the weed-out (perhaps still now as well) was the intro Calculus class. The average grade was C or C-, but there was no balancing of the kind that Uh_Clem mentions. There were a ton of F's and hardly anyone ever got an A. I get the idea that if Gauss had come through the class, he might have eked out an A-.

The real killer, at least for me: when my father took it in the fall of 1953, the intro Calculus class for Georgia Tech freshmen met Mon-Sat at 6:30 AM for an hour, after which there was an hour of mandatory ROTC drill.
12.4.2008 4:57pm
OrinKerr:
David Walser,

In my experience, it is widely understood that law school grades do not indicate how well a student "mastered the course material." No one "masters" material as a law student: A law student in one semester can only get a relatively superficial understanding of an area. Any lawyer who relied on their law school recollection of a topic in the course of providing services to actual clients should be rebuked if not disbarred.

Employers understand this, at least in my experience. For example, employers hiring young attorneys may rely on a student's overall GPA, but they normally do not look at the student's grades in the field most relevant to their practice to determine how much they know.
12.4.2008 5:01pm
Dave N (mail):
OrinKerr,

I did the same thing in ConLaw. The professor was very liberal (yes, even Utah has a few; I am sure Paul Cassell would agree). Knowing and writing to his biases helped me immeasurably. At least I think it did since my professor gave me an A.
12.4.2008 6:03pm
von Neumann (mail):
NYU gives A's, B's and C's? Since when?

When I went there it gave H for honors, VG for very good, G for good, P for pass and F's. Only one professor in my recollection gave an F (four of them)-- Professor Costonis in real property. However, it was very difficult to get an H. Only about 10 were ever given out per first-year section of over 100.

My funniest recollection is of going to get my grade in criminal law with a woman who had graduated Harvard in 3 years with a 4.0 average and had edited a pulitzer prize winning book before going to law school. She had been valedictorian of her high school as well. She (and I) had gotten a G's. She looked at me and said, "OK. H is an A. VG is a B. G is a C. I got a C. (long pause)I really need a drink."
12.4.2008 6:09pm
Enki:
the only thing I'll say here, as someone who went to a school with an objective (no mandated curve) grading scale, is that those at the top of our class (say, top 5%) do not have a comparable GPA with those in the top 5% of a "mandatory curve" school. when competing for jobs, if the employer cares about GPA, I can't really compete with someone who was graded on a curve and ended up high in their class. the person who graduated summa from my school had a 3.77. I graduated 8th with a 3.41. those numbers probably wouldn't even hit the top 25 at NYU (that, I'll confess, is a blind guess).

The thing is, we're all in this to get a job, right? but the way I was graded versus someone from NYU doesn't really tell a prospective employer one way or the other whether or not I did better in school. so my opinion is, no matter what method is chosen as best, it really should be standardized by the ABA. like Orin says, you can't account for anecdotal differences (IE different teachers producing anomalous results) but that's a problem no matter what, and I'd wager in the grand scheme of things a rather small one. if grading systems are standardized by the ABA, then two students from different ABA accredited schools can be fairly compared by employers.
12.4.2008 6:10pm
David Walser:

...employers hiring young attorneys may rely on a student's overall GPA, but they normally do not look at the student's grades in the field most relevant to their practice to determine how much they know.

As a general, I'm sure that's the case. However, I work in tax. When we hire someone into the tax department, we'll often ask to see all of a student's grades. We might then give the nod to a student who got an A in Prof. Smythe's estate planning class even though the student's overall GPA is slightly lower than another student's. We realize we may be reading more into the A than we should, but we've got very little to go on in making a hiring decision and often ask the flimsiest of data points to do a lot of work. In the hypothetical I've been discussing, we might believe the student with in an A in Prof. Smythe's class might be more interested in a career in tax than the student with a slightly higher overall GPA but few if any classes in tax. In reality, all that A might say is the student was the best of a very dull lot in one particular class.

No, we don't expect any student to have mastered any subject in the sense the student would be qualified to lecture on the topic as an expert. People still serve an apprenticeship.
12.4.2008 6:11pm
OrinKerr:
Interesting, David. Yes, I can see how a specialty like tax can be a bit different.
12.4.2008 6:13pm
GW 2L (mail):
To the question above, GW's curve is between 3.125 and 3.2, I think. Most professors max it out in my experience.
12.4.2008 6:21pm
ASlyJD (mail):
David and Orin, a thought from a naive 2L:

Could it be that the A in the specialty is not treated so much as a mark of absolute mastery, but as evidence of what area of law a person is willing to spend the extra time and dedication? My IP grade will be much better than any others this semester, and that is because IP is the class I actually wanted to take and it is the field I in which want to specialize.
12.4.2008 6:22pm
Bama 1L:
Suppose an elective class only attracts 10 students, including the 3 best students in the entire school.

If the school requires a hard curve such that only one of them can get an A, then those three aren't very smart, are they?
12.4.2008 6:34pm
ForWhatItsWorth2:
For students at the high end of the class, this will make little difference. At the end of second year, NYU issues awards for the top 10 students ("Butler" scholars), and the top 10% of the class ("Florence Allen" scholars). After five semesters, there are awards for the three students with the highest grades. See here. Top judges and firms know what to look for.
12.4.2008 6:39pm
frankcross (mail):
Actually, a question that 90% get wrong is an excellent exam question. If such questions did not exist, you could not differentiate the very best students. Those are just tough questions, not bad ones. Given a typical law school exam, though, it is not a question missed by 90%, but a particular point of analysis.
12.4.2008 7:21pm
David Walser:

"Suppose an elective class only attracts 10 students, including the 3 best students in the entire school."

If the school requires a hard curve such that only one of them can get an A, then those three aren't very smart, are they?

Ha! Each of the three likely have an ego such that each thinks that he or she will get the A and the other two will be left out in the cold.
12.4.2008 7:29pm
David Walser:

Could it be that the A in the specialty is not treated so much as a mark of absolute mastery, but as evidence of what area of law a person is willing to spend the extra time and dedication? My IP grade will be much better than any others this semester, and that is because IP is the class I actually wanted to take and it is the field I in which want to specialize.


Yes, that's what it could mean and it's what we hope it means. However, since the talent level in your IP class taught in the Fall likely differs substantially from the talent level of the same class taught in the Winter, how am I to compare two students -- one who took the class in the Fall and the other who took the class in the Winter?

Grades are a terrible way to judge a young professional's potential. Yet, too often, grades are the first screen we use to determine who we'll interview and grades (or a grade in a single class) might be the tie breaker among close calls. Grades appear to be objective and we often fall back on them to justify our conclusions at the end of a very subjective process. It's very frustrating for all concerned.
12.4.2008 7:43pm
Dr. T (mail) (www):
To me, the policy indicates that NYU Law School believes that its admission process is nearly foolproof, and that almost everyone accepted to the law school should graduate. That makes NYU Law School like every medical school in the U.S. (Of all students who enter medical school, over 95% graduate. To me, that is a travesty, not a triumph, because far more than 5% of accepted applicants are unfit to be physicians. That's one reason for the many incidents of malpractice.)
12.4.2008 7:48pm
Sum Budy:
My school had a mandatory curve but no mandatory distribution. Thus, if the curve was a 'B', the professor could choose to give everybody in the class a 'B', half of the class 'A's and half 'C's, or some other combination.

My first year, I took a class with a professor who didn't like to give low grades -- which effectively meant that he also couldn't give high grades. In a class of 110 students, he gave a single 'A' and 6 or 7 'A-'s. Next year, I was required to keep a certain GPA or risk losing my scholarship, but I had really enjoyed his lectures, so I took him for another class, and tried to balance out my potential grade by taking other professors more likely to give high grades.

At the end of the semester, I was one of four people (again, out of 110) who received an 'A' in his class. On the other hand, in my "easy" class, I only got a 'B+'.

And -- to the poster who thought that politics played a part in grades -- I can't think of a single exam in school where politics played a rule. Spot the issue, state the rule, argue both sides, and pick a reasonable outcome -- it's a good formula to do well on law school exams. Writing about politics is a great way to waste time and lose valuable points.
12.4.2008 7:57pm
Mark Rockwell (mail):
... must be rough.
12.4.2008 11:05pm
taney71:
I know most are lawyers on here but anyone know if undergraduate universities have a curve/grade policy?
12.5.2008 8:58am
Aristides (mail) (www):

As a general, I'm sure that's the case. However, I work in tax. When we hire someone into the tax department, we'll often ask to see all of a student's grades. We might then give the nod to a student who got an A in Prof. Smythe's estate planning class even though the student's overall GPA is slightly lower than another student's.


Expect an unsolicited resume from me shortly.

The only thing that frustrated me about the grade curve at my school was how low it was in comparison to other schools (though yes, I did go to a Tier 4 school) and how the administration finally decided to loosen up their standards in my third year, but of course that only applied to students attending in the future, meaning that a fair amount of students would get higher GPAs than me for doing comparable work. In more prosperous times that wouldn't have bothered me, but with the market so tight I find that every little advantage helps and every little disadvantage hurts.
12.5.2008 1:40pm
Connecticut Lawyer (mail):
When I was at Michigan Law 30 years ago, there was a pretty tough curve. Generally speaking, only about 10% of a class got As, and about 25% got Bs. I don't know if this was rigorously adhered to in small seminars, but in large classes (25-100 students), it was. I'm not sure what the rule is at Michigan Law today, but my daughter is an undergrad at Michigan, and she says that a similar curve is still in use for the undergraduate school.
12.5.2008 3:03pm

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