In “Behind the Curve” New York Times reporter David Segal describes unhappy circumstances of second year law students losing their scholarships because they have fallen below some predetermined grade point average (GPA). In one example discussed the student had a GPA of 2.967 and lost her scholarship because she had fallen below a B average (3.0).

Segal points out that many law schools grade “on the curve,” a mathematical concept that really should not be applied in graduate school in any discipline. The curve assumes a normal distribution or bell-shaped curve that might be applied to large classes that have students with poor, average and excellent abilities. Lower division (100 and 200 level) undergraduate classes typically have such a distribution of abilities in large classes but graduate classes don’t. Graduate selection processes are rigorous and typically only B or better students are given admission. In disciplines that have more applicants than they have space to admit, which is typically the case for law schools, only A-average students are admitted. This cohort of students does not have the wide range of ability to which grading on the curve should be applied.

Exams in law school are essay exams. Grading of such exams in not precise to three decimal places. A different reader, or the same reader on a different day, might grade the questions differently. When a law school faculty applies grading on the curve to its students, it is applying a mathematical maneuver to force high quality and potentially A students to become B, C, D and F students. This is not defensible for a population of very bright students. But is an excellent way to recover scholarship money so that students will have to pay more tuition before they receive their degrees. This really is a form of bait and switch.

Segal suggests that schools should make the numbers of students losing their scholarships transparent so that it could be a part of the student’s decision to attend a particular school. A better solution would be to grade a student’s work to a professional standard and not apply an inappropriate mathematical construct. If a law school defends grading on the curve, it means they have a terrible admissions process and are, in fact, admitting students who have questionable ability to pursue graduate degrees.

Absolutely on target. You should also note that the school featured in the NYTimes story was a poorly ranked school engaged in an intentional “bait and switch.” By giving lots of scholarships, the school was trying to attract students who would not otherwise attend. That makes the grading practices doubly dishonest.