Grading is among the most arcane of issues in any law school. It is difficult, controversial, personal, emotional and necessary. Grading policy is apparently even more mysterious. So in a modest effort to shed light on policy, here is how it works at uOttawa. And here also is how it works elsewhere.
We have guidelines. The guidelines specify the average permitted for various types of courses, allowing also some range of deviation from that average. None of this is in the least secret. Those specifics are all on the law school website.
No final grade is released until Faculty Council meets to review the average for each class. If the average is outside the range permitted by the guidelines, the professor is asked to bring their grading into line. They are not obliged to do so, but if they decline, they provide reasons for it. Sometimes Faculty Council accepts the reasons. In my experience, mostly it does not. And most of the time, the professor then adjusts the marks.
The professor does so in contemplation of the chief reasons for the guidelines. First, they prevent grade inflation. Grades cannot drift up without the guidelines being adjusted up. In the past, we did adjust our guidelines (after all the other law schools lifted their equivalent thereby placing our students at a disadvantage).
Second, the guidelines reduce disparities between sections of the same course, creating equity between courses regardless of the section in which a student enrolls.
Third, they mitigate the effects of hard profs and soft profs. No matter how hard an exam and no matter how easy, the class average will be within the guidelines. There is no incentive to seek out “bird courses” or avoid challenging profs. Students still do this, of course, but I wouldn’t necessarily consider that fully rational behaviour.
Four, it makes arguments about “unfair” evaluation less compelling. Evaluation cannot be unfair if everyone is measured by the same standard and marks then comply with the guidelines. Grading is only unfair if some students in the same class were treated differently than others.
So that’s how it works for us. But there is a new issue. Every law school appears to use a similar benchmark average, give or take. (University of Toronto has opted for its own world, eliminating letter grades in favour of a different narrative description. I don’t have much to say on that, because I haven't studied it closely and I don’t really understand why it does anything different than change the nomenclature.)
Quotas: Good, Bad or Indifferent?
But it is worth noting that several other schools in Canada do more than have a benchmark average like ours. In addition, they also control distributions of grades within the class. That is, they place a quota on the number of marks above and below the B range. I won’t name these schools – but their system is freely available for review on their websites. By my back of the envelope estimation, about half of the law students in Ontario are subject to a quota system.
In a quota system, everything then hinges on the proportion of students allocated to these sub- and above-B grades. School policies do vary on this point. But last year, we conducted an internal analysis of these systems as compared to the de facto distribution produced by our uncontrolled distribution system. On the basis of that analysis, there is reason to believe that in relative terms, quota systems squeeze students into the B range. This is especially true in some schools that cap sub- and above-B grades very aggressively.
Put another way, under a quota system, an average student appears more likely to receive a series of undifferentiated Bs. Under an uncontrolled distribution system, the student may have the same overall B average, but her or his transcript may include more sub-B and above-B grades.
But truly, which is better: the more mixed transcript or the mono-B transcript? We don’t know, because there is no metric by which to measure what we mean by “better”. I imagine that weaker students do better in a quota system that squeezes them upwards towards a B. Some might regard this as grade inflation by stealth. It is “easier” to obtain B grades in at least some (but not necessarily all) quota systems.
Then again (and this too is important), I imagine stronger students do better in a system like ours, one that doesn’t force them down towards a B.
As for average students, well a case can be made that one looks more constant with the mono-B than with a sprinkling of marks of different sorts. But then, who can say? Maybe our system enabled the student to obtain an A- in that important course the hiring firm was most interested in, while at another school, a similarly situated student was squeezed into the B range.
So it really isn't clear that quotas are a good thing for anyone except students who habitually get low grades, and then only when the quota is set at a level that really does force them up to a B.
Law profs generally are not keen on grading schemes that exagerrate the credentials of truly below-average students. Many of us see ourselves in the consumer protection business when we assign grades.
And because of this uncertainty about which system is better and suspicion that quotas are grade inflation by stealth, I can say that there is not much appetite in my school for incorporating a quota system. And setting aside principled concerns and the difficulties in implementation, we have a senate rule that prohibits mathematical systems of mark distribution. (It does not, by the way, stand in the way of our existing guidelines – that was confirmed when the senate rule was introduced).
So the case for moving to a quota system at uOttawa would have to be strong to obtain a carve-out from the senate rule. Examining the merits and demerits of that case is an empirical exercise. Nothing will budge without this clear-eyed analysis, and that is a major undertaking.
Any students interested in a directed research project?