Balkinization  

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Doing Our Pre-Laws (No) Favors

Mark Graber

The highlight of this morning’s effort to evaluate approximately 40 applications to the University of Maryland School of Law was the number of students who had over a B average at a well respected university who were in the bottom third of their graduating class. In some cases, based on exceptionally skimpy materials, I concluded that they were the beneficiaries of grade inflation, that they had received A’s for average work and B’s for below average work. In other cases, on the basis of equally skimpy materials, I concluded that they were victims of grade inflation, that because everyone at the university in question was receiving only A’s and B’s, the numbers did not do justice to their intellectual abilities and achievements. More often than not, given that other evidence was skimpy, I used class rank as a proxy and did not recommend the student for admission. Better safe than sorry, I suppose.

If my evaluative standards are typical (I have no idea and would love if other members of law school admissions committees posted comments), undergraduate professors are not doing their students any favors when a third to a half of their students in upper level courses are given A’s (my goal is between 20-25%, probably still too high but the lowest I can justify given rampant grade inflation elsewhere). The main consequence of this practice is that persons evaluating their students have great difficulties distinguishing the best from the somewhat above average.

Undergraduate professors do their students major favors when they actually have a conversation with their best students about their law school ambitions, advise them on their personal statements, and write letters that are specifically geared to the law schools to which those students have applied. In particular, please do not write cliches promising that your students have the ability to succeed in some random law school. More often than not, the raw numbers demonstrate that. Virtually all applicants to tier one and tier two law schools can do the work at some law school in the United States. I need to know why the student whose file I am reading will shine at the University of Maryland School of Law (assume in this endeavor that while, as the case with any loyal professor, I think my home institution somewhat underranked, I recognize that a student not likely to be the editor of the Yale Law Journal may nevertheless be very successful elsewhere). Moreover, if there is a weakness in the student’s file, nothing is better than a good letter from a professor explaining away that weakness. Alas, this morning’s evidence suggests that while professors curry favor with undergraduates through grade inflation (you need about a 3.7 at most places to have a shot of being in the top third of the graduating class), most write perfunctory letters, if they write at all. Of the approximately 40 files I read this morning, only a quarter had even one letter from a professor who struck me as really knowing the student and making best efforts to sell that student to the best law school the numbers might warrant.

UPDATE: Kevin Heller's point in the Comments Section is a good one. You cannot target a letter to every school to which a student has applied, but most letters I receive could do a lot better job indicating approximately where a student would be appropriately placed.

Comments:

Mark,

I strongly agree with the overall tenor of your post. Grade inflation is indeed rampant -- and has been for many years. I remember all too well the dean of admissions at Stanford Law School telling me when I was a student (in the mid-1990s) that the only thing you can learn from a Brown transcript is that the student successfully paid tuition.

Still, I wonder about your statement that professors should "write letters that are specifically geared to the law schools to which those students have applied," not "cliches promising that your students have the ability to succeed in some random law school." Is that really a fair expectation? Most students apply to more than two dozen law schools -- from reaches to safeties. Do you really believe that professors should tailor their recommendation letters to each school? Even if they have the time -- which they don't -- do they have the knowledge? I could probably write a tailored letter to a school with a very distinct personality, such as Stanford, Yale, Cardozo, or George Mason. But beyond that, not so much. I know Maryland is a very good law school, for example, but not much else. I could spend some time on the internet finding out more, but again -- my students will be applying to 23 other law schools, so that's not exactly a practical possibility. So would you really penalize one of my New Zealand undergrads who applies to Maryland if I write a letter of recommendation that explains why she will shine in a top 40 law school instead of specifically at Maryland? Don't you think that would be more than a little unfair -- both to me and to my student?
 

Grade inflation is an intersting problem and one I've experienced from a number of different perspectives--first as an undergraduate, then as an undergraduate instructor, and finally as a law school applicant.

While I agree with you that the collective mass of undergraduate professors are doing the collective mass of students no favors by inflating grades, without some sort of standardized grading system across classes and even across universities, there's a race-to-the-bottom problem. No one can tackle grade inflation alone. And the freedom given to professors is to great for most of the universities to be able to tackle it as an institution.

I graduated in 2000 from a top-20 university that didn't practice much grade inflation (yes, some still do exist). My sub-3.8 GPA put me in the top 5% of my class. I got a good education and don't regret my college choice. However, it stung a little to find in applying to law schools that at quite a number of law schools my respectable GPA was going to be plugged into a calculator where it was going to be considered in the same light as a sub-3.8 GPA earned by someone at a comparable university where 1/3 of the students had that GPA or better.

I'd like to fantasize that whatever law schools I applied to observed closely my LSAC report, indicating that my GPA compared favorably with the university median of 3.0, but having gotten engaged and now married to a university admissions officer, I realize that this is, at many schools, simply not the case. Many admissions offices do not have the time or the resources to examine each application with anything approaching the level of individualized scrutiny that we would like to believe they deserve.

I have since enrolled in a joint degree program and ended up myself an instructor of undergraduates at a different university, one where grade inflation ran rampant. After seeing the panic-stricken looks on the faces of my students (a couple of whom announced their intentions to drop the class) after returning their first papers, I felt extraordinary pressure to conform to the inflated standards. I simply could not justify to myself being the person giving students Bs for work that would easily have received an A- or better if evaluated by most other instructors in the university.

The only solution to this problem that I can see, short of instituting some sort of across-the-board policy on grade inflation at most or all of the top universities, is for graduate programs themselves to take a more holistic approach to evaluating applications and, if necessary, to revise the admissions process. I take your point that good letters of recommendation are part of this process because they shed more light than anonymous numbers. However, many undergraduate professors simply do not know how to write letters of recommendation for students who are pursuing other fields of study. How does a physics professor from Iceland evaluate a student's aptitude for study at a US law school? Does the professor even know what attributes law schools are looking for? In addition, while most professors will know their best students--usually the students aiming for the really top schools--quite well, it can be difficult to write convincingly and personally for students who may have been only the 8th best student in a class of 40 and who are not in contention for Harvard or Yale but who might be very successful at solid lawschools somewhat further down the list. I have found as an instructor that it is difficult for me to gain the kind of familiarity with my students that begets really excellent recommendation letters in classes with more than about 15 students. Over 20, and most everyone outside of the top 2 or 3 starts to become a blur.

I think what we have on our hands here is a widespread market failure. There exist too many incentives to inflate and the externalities of inflation (e.g. worthless transcripts that communicate notthing of value) are not born by the people assigning the grades. The advent of the internet and increased information flow has only made the problem worse. University officials at my non-inflated undergrad must compete for students with universities where the students know they can get better grades for doing the same work.

I think we need a two-sided approach the problem. Elite universities must take a firm stand on grade inflation. It has to start at the top. Carnegie Mellon and Tulane cannot take a firm stand on the issue unless Harvard, Yale, and Columbia do, too. And law schools need to work on creating an application process that allows students to communicate that they are something more than a GPA and and LSAT score. I understand that many 22-year olds having nothing else, but as a student coming into law school with a history and an idea and a plan, I found it difficult to represent myself within the confines of the 2-page personal statement + resume format.

As a last resort, universities ought to consider creating a new grade or two, like a country with deflated currency creates new money, and to control strictly its use. ++, to be given to no more than 5% of the students in any given class, and a + for another 10% or so who fall outside the top 5%. There might even be a non-academic notation option, allowing a professor to give, say, a TT to a student who made remarkable contribution or showed unusual promise, regardless of whether that student was one of the students who received a top mark.

I agree with you that grade inflation is a real problem. A bigger problem, however, is that students and colleges and graduate schools communicate amongst themselves in this bizarre ABCDF code that does not facilitate meaningful communication among intelligent adults.
 

I think academic associations should consider devising standards setting out guidelines on what percentage of students in any given class will be able to earn a particular grade. Following the normal curve may be a good place to start.

It also strikes me how much standards have changed since I graduated college in the late '70s. At that time, an "A" was really an "A" and so on. But given that even SAT norms have been adjusted in recent years, it's hardly surprising that grading policies would follow suit.

I suppose we can get by with incompetent lawyers, but I shutter to think about the effect of grade inflation on the medical profession, which is already filled with intellectually lazy tortfeasors with little or no sense of conscience or morality.
 

It seems to me that grade inflation could be solved, but only through, as Catherine says, coordinated efforts. One start would be a national requirement for number grades (1-100) for every class. The numbers given by each professor could then be tracked; after 2-3 years, it would be easy to assign a mean and standard deviation to that particular professor. Students who took that class could then be evaluated statistically.

That still leaves the harder problem: comparing the relative difficulty of different classes. We all know that a physics class at MIT is likely to be harder than basket weaving somewhere else. I assume admissions departments already have some means of accounting for this. It would be helpful if the top schools could settle on system for this and implement it.
 

I graduated high school in 2003; a number of students in my graduating class and the one before mine complained bitterly that Harvard had recently adopted an anti-inflation policy, and that therefore they expected their GPAs to spike downwards--this before any of them had even taken a single class.

In response to catherine, I read of a professor at an Ivy League school (though, unfortunately, I don't remember who or where) who gave all of his students two grades: one was what he believed they should have gotten, and one was what he was submitting to the registrar as a consequence of grade inflation. It's not perfect, but it does allow one to tell students that they really deserved C-minuses without having them drop the class after the first quiz.
 

Matt: The prof you're thinking of is Harvey Mansfield at Harvard.
 

While I agree with you about grade inflation, I do not think it is the biggest problem concerning graduate programs for which their is no required undergraduate major. There is a wide range of average GPAs for different undergraduate majors that admissions officers either don't know about or don't account for. For example, at UCLA a few years ago when I graduated the average person who majored in health sciences (molecular bio, physio, psychobio, etc...) had a GPA in the mid-3 region depending on specific major. The average GPA in engineering was in the mid to high 2 region. EE, my major, was 2.7. When I applied to medical school I know my GPA, which was very competitive to when compared to other engineers but quite low when compared to health sciences, hurt me. This especially hurts if schools don't rank students.

rich, I have to say your perception of physicians is way off the mark and I can say this as a medical student who is around a great many physicians. I'd have to say law is filled with more morally bankrupt people based on the stuff that happens with class action lawsuits, various politcal groups, malpractice lawyers, etc. Although I'm sure i'm probably wrong on this.
 

One of the things they teach us in law school is just how few people who have been injured by negligent doctors ever even bother to sue, let alone eventually recover anything significant. Doctors do screw up all the time, and if you take away incentives to force them to pay attention (i.e. threat of a lawsuit) it will only get worse.
 

Of course negligence happens, but lawyers and patients typically exaggerate claims of negligence. If a blood vessel bursts during surgery patients and lawyers are quick to claim negligence even if it is not. sometimes vessels burst through no fault of the physician. all surgeries come with risks and oftentimes people don't fully understand the risks. insurance companies also settle a lot of claims that aren't the physicians fault. if a patient doesn't take his meds or takes too many of them or ignores the advice of the physician, how is the physician at fault?

I'll give an example that happened to my cousin, an ob/gyn. The patient refused to undergo a C-section even though the baby was in distress, however she was unable to give birth vaginally. After much delay the patient was finally persuaded to undergo an emergency c-section to save the baby's life. not surprisingly, there were complications during the c-section and injury to baby from hypoxia. What happens? the patient sues my cousin for malpractice and the insurance company settled and jacked up my cousins insurance rates.

A lot errors arise as a result of market influences. In the relentless drive to lower costs, the doctor to patient ratio and more importantly the nurse to patient ratio have decreased. This can easily overwhelm doctors and nurses and increases the likelihood of errors. The staff shortages are made up by hiring lesser trained people (physicians assistants instead of physicians, CNAs instead of nurses). These people are less likely to notice an error if one is made. Also technological advancements that drastically lower error rates (e.g. paperless hospitals) are delayed due to prohibitive costs.
 

Brian,

Both professions have their problems. Every year, I go on a male bonding ski trip that started with four of us who were freshmen together in college some 35+ years go. And inevitably, I am the only lawyer among 3-4 physicians.

One of my comebacks as to ethics is that while we are being taught in our CLE classes about how to keep from accidently lying, doctors in their CME classes are being taught creative billing practices, where they are taught essentially how to cheat on their billing (which would be an ethical violation for those of us lawyers who don't work for large firms).
 

Part of my problem with getting into law school was that I worked as a software engineer first. So, I was competing with applicants 15 years younger, and whose GPAs had 15 more years of grade inflation in them.

Looking back to college admissions, one of the things that had always bothered me way back then was that the elite colleges seemed to look seriously at some public high schools, and almost ignored others. For example, Harvard might accept maybe four kids from one HS a year, but none from its rival next door. Yale would reverse that.

But it doesn't appear to be nearly as noticable with prep schools. And the explanation given way back when I was a HS senior makes some sense even today - that these schools trust the grading of those schools that they routinely accept from, but don't from others. So, they need a critical mass from some school before they can really feel comfortable with its grades.

Finally, grade inflation was obvious even back then. I graduated from HS in 1968, and we had 1 valdictorian for a class of 500. My youngest brother graduated 14 years later, and they had 9 of them, for the same sized class (we knew this because he was one of them).
 

Why do you suppose a reader would be impressed with Yale Law School/Review?

It is my general impression that a flock of Yale/Harvard/Chi law school types have been selling the Republic down the drain the past 15 years or so. First it started with the dramatic decrease in manufacturing in America egged on by a seemingly endless series of so called free trade agreements. The end result was America ending up as a debtor nation. However, that was just the warm up....now we see scores of 'top level' law school eviscerating the constitution, introducing torture as a normal tool in law 'enforcement's arsenal. And just for good measure we have a 'top level' law school hire the leading cheerleader of said policies. Thank you UCal!
 

Bruce,

I agree. Both sides have some people with ethical issues. From what I hear insurance fraud is a fairly big problem.

If I may ask, what med school did your friends go to? All we're learning about in our CME classes are the principles of autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence and justice. They're not even goint to teach us the business side of things.
 

As a non-doctor and non-lawyer, I don't know whom to root for in this donnybrook. After seeing a lawyer, you usually need a doctor. And after seeing a doctor, you usually need a lawyer... Maybe you people deserve each other.

Who do I get to bill for the 40 seconds I spent writing this comment? Maybe a drug company can pick up the tab. Anyone?
 

I went to The Evergreen State College, a small public liberal arts college for undergraduate. I really liked the grading system in place there. Instead of receiving letter grades, each student received a written evaluation describing his strengths, weaknesses and contributions to the class. Certainly, this kind of grading procedure put a good deal of strain on the various instructors, and probably would not work in a larger institution where classes regularly exceed 100 students. However, I think this kind of evaluation process gives admission committees a good survey of the strengths of a student, and the unique kinds of contributions that they can make to student community. These evaluations also gave the professor an opportunity to talk about the relative difficulty of the course work, which would seems like information that would also be useful for admissions committees.

I liked the system at Evergreen, though I can imagine that it could become a nightmare for admission committees, if they were confronted with transcripts like this from all their applicants.
 

The University of Chicago has inflated grades, as well. A B+ is the blackest mark you might receive, and woe betide the person foolish enough to take a course from a visiting professor used to following a more honest system.
 

The problem in grade inflation is even worse than you advance. Since grades have different meanings across universities, and between programs in a university, the naive cure is to simply use rankings, with the best ranking being that within the student's program, so a 3.2 from an engineer at MIT is better than a 3.9 from pre-law from "State University".

However, there's a further problem with grade inflation that negates even that - if you squeeze the grade range down, rankings become fairly arbitrary, sensitive to random noise such as ill health on a final. It's very difficult for a superior student to give themselves any kind of cushion - the range of grades is so small, that a small blip suddenly changes rankings, even if the student was heads above throughout their career.

It's also destructive of any kind of cooperation at the undergraduate level - it would be irrational for an undergraduate to help lower ranking students, since the difference is so slim. This undermines a significant portion of the educational process, which should be to learn collaborative skills.

This is a problem across fields - it's well known in many fields that if, as a professor, you refuse to engage in grade-inflation, tenure is likely to be denied (in fields where teaching is at all relevant). The ratchet only exists upward, but not downward.

Maybe graduate programs in all fields would be better off simply ignoring grades and rankings, except as an initial cut-off? I realize it's expensive to expand the interviewing process to be a bit more inclusive, but it appears to be the only option left.
 

I think the "free market" could possibly address the grade inflation problem, as long as there is sufficient information for the participants to make an informed decision. This might be one way:

1. Decide a metric for grade inflation, for example, if 25% or more of an institution's graduates have a GPA higher than 3.5, that indicates grade inflation.

2. Decide what additional screening is needed for applicants coming from grade-inflating institutions, for example, 5 additional recommendations, additional interview, higher test scores, additional essay or research project, etc.

3. Warn institutions and students that beginning in 2010, the new requirements will apply.

4. Beginning in 2010, publicize the list of grade-inflating institutions and the additional requirements for their graduates, so high-school students can use this information when deciding at which university to attend.

Just one possible solution...
 

Allen,

So you suggest giving high school students a list of universities where they have the best chance of burying their grades in the noise of grade inflation? Don't you realize that the "consumers" are part of the problem driving the grade inflation? You expect an 18 year old kid to exchange grade inflation for maybe tougher test scores 5 years down the road, if he decides to get a law degree or some other graduate degree?

At least with grade inflation, they know that they'll get a foot in the door - it would be rational for them to take that initial payoff, in exchange for the higher cost later on.

I seriously doubt any market driven designs will work in a market primarily driven by bowl seasons wins. Maybe the problem is too much market drive? Students can't be reduced to consumers - they ain't buyin' tacos or SUVs, for god's sake!
 

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