Investigating the Grading Curve

BY ANDREA SAENZ

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Every semester, as grades are released, Harvard Law students examine their transcripts and proclaim themselves either pleased or disappointed with the results. More than a few students, however, are unsatisfied with seeing letter grades without context. Are the grades good? Bad? Okay?

It is common knowledge that grades are inflated at Harvard Law as compared to most other law schools, and that professors have at least some constraints on the distribution of grades they must give to large classes. Students often repeat that classes are “curved on a B+”, and that A+s and grades below B- are discretionary.

There are also bits of grading lore that circulate, like the story that made its way into last year’s Parody about a certain iconoclast professor asking for, and getting, a 3L volunteer with a sure job upon graduation to take a C in his course so that the professor could award more high grades and still meet the requirements of the curve. But the details beyond that are unclear.

“I have a student who got her 1L grades last month and wanted to know if they were good,” said a 3L tutor who asked not to be named. “She said, ‘I want to know where I stand.’ I had to tell her, I really have no idea.”

In fact, the inability of students to approximate class rank is by design, a response by the Harvard Law faculty to problems with class rank in past eras. The Record contacted Registrar Leslie Sutton-Smith to ask if she could provide the curve professors are required to use – what percentage of each letter grade a professor must give. Sutton-Smith responded that she was “not able to discuss this” with the Record, and referred the paper to Professor Andrew Kaufman, Vice-Dean for Academic Programming.

Kaufman explained the school’s policy, first clarifying the nature of the grading curve. He dispelled the common understanding that professors are required to give, for example, 30% of the class a B+ and 20% an A-, or a similar distribution. There is no strictly required curve, said Kaufman, but there are “suggested grading distributions, with various deviations and exceptions permitted…[f]or example, a teacher may either spread or ‘clump’ grades, depending on the kids of exams he or she gets.”

However, when the faculty voted on these distributions several years ago, the suggestion to make the information public did not pass. According to Kaufman, this was largely a response to unpleasant memories of Harvard’s previous era of grades, “when we used to give grade averages to two decimal places and class ranking in numerical order throughout the class. A small difference in grade point average could result in a hundred-place difference in class ranking or more.”

The faculty and administration thus decided, said Kaufman, that releasing the grade distributions might be used by students or employers who interviewed them to “make estimates about class rank that approached the old misleading, and unfortunate, official class ranking system.”

There is a general desire to play down the importance of grades at the law school, while acknowledging that they figure in several arenas like the law review competition and competitiveness for some post-graduation jobs and clerkships. Many professors, especially of first-year-students, give speeches at the end of the semester encouraging students not to worry about their grades. In recent years, the administration has stopped publicizing the winners of the Sears Prize, which is awarded in the fall to the two 2L and 3L students with the highest grade point averages in their class from the previous year.

The high grades and lack of class rank make Harvard different than many other law schools, which have strict grading curves. The National Law Journal reported last week on a survey at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, where 80% of the students reported dissatisfaction with the grading system, which requires 20% As, 60% Bs, and 20% Cs. Many law schools have B or B- curves, and allow employers to require certain class rank cutoffs for on-campus interview slots.

On the other hand, some law schools have purposely relaxed their curves to decrease student tension over grades or make their students more competitive with students from top-ranked schools, which typically have high average grades. UCLA School of Law has relaxed its grade curve twice in the last 20 years, with the most recent move three years ago, when Cs became discretionary for 2L and 3L students. UC Davis School of Law relaxed its first-year curve five years ago to bring it in line with Hastings and UCLA, and has no curve for 2L and 3L courses.

Some of Harvard’s peer law schools also do not compute class rank, and some have taken steps away from the usual letter grade system. The University of Chicago Law School grades on an unusual 186-point scale. Yale and Berkeley forgo letter grades altogether for a modified no pass/pass/honors system, which has been suggested at HLS from time to time.

The HLS administration’s intentions notwithstanding, students and employers still do have access to limited information about grade distributions, and while they cannot use it to calculate class rank, it is possible to guess at one’s approximate standing in the class.

First, the law school awards Latin honors each year to almost half the class, and in doing so releases the grade point average required to be in the top 10% and the top 40%, the cut-offs required for magna cum laude and cum laude. (Summa cum laude, which has only been awarded to two students in the last six years, requires a fixed GPA of 7.200.) The last several years of honors cut-offs provide both evidence of the law school’s creeping grade inflation and a very broad idea of where a student’s GPA places him or her in the class. 2L and 3L GPAs are, however, higher than 1L GPAs, largely because of the ability to take a number of graded seminar and clinical courses that are free from any “suggested grading distribution.”

Enterprising students who want even more information have gone even further in trying to understand the curve. In 2004, a committee of students published a wide-sweeping study on gender and the experience of women at Harvard Law School, showing significant differences in women’s classroom experience, extracurriculars, and grades and rate of graduating with honors.

The study included detailed information about 1L grades received by several classes of students between 1996 and 2000, gathered from the Registrar’s Office, who reported the grades of three class years anonymously. The graphs published in the report, comprising 8,248 separate course grades, show a basic distribution for its subjects of 8-11% A, 17-19%A-, 32-34% B+, 29-32% B, 7-8% B-, and 1% each of A+ and C or lower. Students have used message boards like Autoadmit.com and other informal channels to share this information as shedding some light on their grades.

There are, of course, significant problems using this information to understand one’s current grades, since the report was not designed for that purpose: the data is a good decade old, it only applies to first-year grades, and it is an aggregate of grades over dozens of classes, not the distribution used in any one particular class. Still, for students looking to understand just how average a B+ really is, the gender study information and recent honors cutoffs, all of which are publicly available, provide at least a little context. Whether the law school makes further changes in its grading policy or how much information students receive about it remains to be seen.

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