Law in Contemporary Society
A statement several people made today was that the notion of the grading curve was insulting. They based this (I assume) on the fact that their grades were measured relative to the overall performance of the class, as opposed to an individualized assessment of the quality of the work done. It seems to me, though, that this mistakes the purpose and significance of grades. Grades are not necessarily an evaluation of the specific person's work done, or the effort they put in; this is especially true when the grading format is an anonymous exam.

Instead, the purpose of curving grades is to define relative achievement within the class. Whether or not this is best represented by a single test is another question, but it seems to me that grades are not merely a tool to pat people on the back for a job well done. I remember in college that the most popular classes were those taught by professors who were notorious for easy grading. If everyone gets a good grade though, what does that actually say? A B+ in a class where the average grade is an A should be a lot less meaningful than a B in a class where the average is a C+. The curve eliminates this problem.

I think Professor Moglen touched on this by saying The idea of top-ness is generated here. This seems to directly capture a lot of student insecurities and worries, especially with regard to the grading curve. Many students at CLS are used to getting very high grades, and have come to define their results in a course by the grade they receive. This creates the self-imposed stress that people worry about, especially when its coupled with a sense that a low grade is a reflection upon the innate quality of the student overall. The problem is that there are many other factors that should come into play with regard to how one feels about one's effort in a class; these factors were discussed by Professor Moglen, and include things such as improvement, risk taking, etc.

Does the grading system need reform? Probably, and it's something that has been a frequent topic of conversation. But as it stands now, having the curve seems to be necessary in order to make grades relevant. Certainly there should be flexibility with regards to an especially outstanding class, and professors should be allowed to work within it. But I wonder if the fear discussed is not narrative created by students worrying about their own merit?

-- AaronShepard - 31 Mar 2009

Indeed, Aaron. Being one of the students evidently so affected by the grading curve as to write a paper about it, I began to wonder today if the great interest in the grading curve was really a channeling mechanism.

I'm sure that no one likes being at the bottom of any assessment. But the real anxiety about competition for grades would, I think, dissipate significantly if not for the perception that grades meaning something to employers. The artificial scarcity of grades would mean less when not connected to a very real scarcity of employment (especially certain types of employment).

Is our fear of the grading curve, then, just re-directed fear of each other?

-- ScottThurman - 31 Mar 2009

Scott, I don't understand the "artificial scarcity" aspect of grades. I read your paper and I understand that that you referenced this there as well when you referred to the scarcity of certain GPAs as empty and mythological. Still, how are good grades, which is the sort of grades I assume meant to refer to as scarce, artificially scarce? If anything, the curve makes them actually, quantifiably scarce. I can understand arguing that the grades that result from the curve might be artificial because they don't measure the right qualities, or perhaps you mean that the grades are artificial in the sense that they are "man-made" by professors defining the curve.

This could be a semantics point, but since you reference it in your paper it seems possible that you may further develop the concept. In that instance, can I suggest finding a different way to phrase the idea than "the artificial scarcity of grades"? I read that and immediately shut off to your argument, because as far as I can see, there is nothing artificial about the scarcity of top grades.

-- MolissaFarber - 31 Mar 2009

Grades might be “artificially scarce” to the extent that we adopt something I’d call “grade platonism.” Grade platonism is the tendency to think of the letter grades as having a kind of external meaning and value, separate from its indication that the student was at a certain percentile in the class on a given exam. To some extent, I think we do internalize (and we worry that employers, etc., internalize) the idea that an "A" signifies great work, that a "B+" signifies good work, that a "B" signifies OK work, and so on, regardless of what percentage of a class fits within each grade bracket, and regardless of whether the underlying test actually measures anything useful.

This is why people get their feathers ruffled about grade-inflation or grade-deflation. No one would care at all about grade inflation if: (1) grades were immediately mappable into percentiles; and (2) we believed that everyone who looked at a grade transcript actually did map the grades into percentiles, when thinking about whether our grades are “good” or “bad,” or when comparing them against transcripts from other schools. We wouldn’t really care whether the median grade is an B+ or a C+, as long as the grade distribution is printed on the back of our transcripts. Our objections would be to the fact that we are being measured against each other, the meaninglessness of those measurements, and the sort of learning we do when the method of evaluation is a single anonymous final exam.

While I do think that grade deflation can cause real stress and anxiety, I think after first semester, we do tend to reset our expectations for what a "good" transcript would look like, and I suspect potential employers largely do too.

The important thing is to separate out our objections to the grading curve (viewed as a quota system for each letter grade), from our concerns about the meaninglessness of whatever it is that anonymous final exams end up measuring, and the sort of learning that students do in classes where evaluations are based on a single anonymous final exam. This is I think partly what I was trying to get at in the discussion over at Lauren Rosenberg's Paper. The grading curve and the letter-grade system are both up for grabs, it seems, but the model of evaluating students on the basis of one anonymous exam (to the extent we're evaluated at all under alternative systems) doesn't seem to be up for grabs. Nor does the companion practice of having nearly 100 person Socratic classes for 1Ls.

-- DanielMargolskee - 31 Mar 2009

Molissa: While at this point I am not terribly wedded to the language of my essay (even if I accidentally drop it into other places), I did mean "artificial" in the sense of "man-made." It may be, as I felt Prof. Moglen was saying today, that grades correspond, for the most part, to real, substantive differences amongst students' performances. In that sense, I do not mean that they are artificial. I mean they are artificial in that the distribution of grades can be changed. I agree that a more accurate term, if not dropping the line of thought altogether, would be preferred.

-- ScottThurman - 31 Mar 2009

It seems to me that changing the distribution isn't the problem. The core issue that needs to be resolved it seems is the poor use of grades by employers, and the poor method by which some grades are given out. Changing the distribution is just going to be re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, unless those responsible for the former two problems are convinced to change their ways.

-- AaronShepard - 31 Mar 2009


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r7 - 07 Jan 2010 - 23:00:49 - IanSullivan
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