Could Grade Inflation Be Good?

Nearly a decade ago, I wrote a paper on the problem (at least I see it as a problem) of grade inflation. Just as with monetary inflation, I think that bad things ensue from awarding students grades that are higher than they’ve truly earned.

I thought there was a widespread consensus that something has to be done to arrest grade inflation, so I was quite surprised when I received a copy of a law review article making “A Case for Grade Inflation in Legal Education.” The author, Professor Joshua Silverstein, who teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, sent me a copy of his article because he cited my grade inflation paper–for the purpose of disagreeing with it.

Professor Silverstein is not arguing in favor of grade inflation generally, although I can imagine educational egalitarians using his case for law school grade inflation to defend grade inflation (or even grade abolition) elsewhere. He is only arguing that law schools where traditional grading is still in force should “substantially eliminate” C grades (and lower), thereby making law school grading uniform.

His first argument is that grading differences can be unfair.

Some law schools have already gone to the grading system that’s common in most graduate schools, where a C is reserved for truly unsatisfactory work. That is especially true among more highly ranked law schools. The grading disparity leads to unfairness for students at mid- and lower-ranked law schools where uninflated grading still prevails.

Among examples of those schools, Silverstein mentions the law school at Northern Kentucky University, which recommends that professors who teach first-year courses grade so that thirty to sixty percent of their grades are either C or C+. In contrast, C grades have mostly disappeared at prestigious law schools like Harvard.

That difference can have an impact when students enter the legal job market. Students who graduate from more prestigious law schools already have an advantage in the competition for jobs merely because of their school’s reputation. For them to get another “bump” because their school has abandoned low grades is, Silverstein says, unfair “double counting.” 

Suppose that law student Arnie graduates from Northern Kentucky, the best law school he could get into given his undergraduate record and his score on the Law School Admission Test. Also suppose that law student Belinda graduates from the University of Kentucky law school, the state’s most prestigious school. Finally, suppose that they both wind up applying for the same job.

Belinda has a big advantage. Not only is UK the more prestigious school (many legal employers in the state would not even consider students with degrees from lowly NK), but she also has a higher GPA, let’s say 3.3 versus Arnie’s 3.2. Belinda almost certainly gets that job. Arnie, who worked extremely hard, appears to have suffered unfairly.

If Northern Kentucky adopted Silverstein’s proposal and did away with C grades, perhaps Arnie’s average would have been higher than Belinda’s, thus giving him a better chance. Wouldn’t that be more fair?

Maybe or maybe not.  Higher education is largely a positional good and it simply isn’t possible to improve everyone’s position.

It might be the case above that Arnie’s 3.2 at a “lower” school where high grades are very hard to come by could be the very thing that at least gets him into consideration with students like Belinda and might give him an edge over graduates of other non-prestige schools where grading has been relaxed.

When it’s known that grading is becoming more lenient and compressed at the top, one way for a student to distinguish himself is to excel where high grades still have to be earned.

Therefore, I’m not convinced that the homogenization of law school grading is all upside and no downside.

Silverstein’s second argument is that low grades are (or at least can be) psychologically harmful. Even though students at schools where C really means average are told that getting some Cs does not mean they’re doing poorly, he argues that many are nevertheless shocked and depressed by them. That could cause some to drop out or reduce their level of effort. “When we award large numbers of disappointing C grades to law students,” he writes, “we harm them in ways that are intrinsically bad and undercut our pedagogical aspirations.”

You might think that law students should be psychologically tough enough to take the grades their professors think they have earned, but Silverstein thinks otherwise.

Even when students are told that getting a C does not mean failure or even below-average work, he says that many still get depressed. He has faced that problem himself with some of his students and writes, “No matter what I told them—including anecdotes about C students who are now happy and successful attorneys—some were inconsolable, which caused them to leave school and give up on a promising career.”

Much as I admire Silverstein’s kind-heartedness, if a law student goes to pieces over a C, I doubt that he or she is suited to the legal profession, where severe criticism by partners, judges, opposing counsel and others is common. Some of his students who became inconsolable after a disappointing grade might have, as he says, gone on to a promising career, but it is at least as likely that those who dropped out spared themselves much greater damage in the future. 

These days, law schools graduate substantially more people than there are jobs in the profession.  Maybe it is not a bad thing if students who are emotionally unable to handle a low grade (or even an average one if it’s a C) decide that the legal “paper chase” isn’t really for them.

Silverstein has another card to play on his “psychological harm” argument. He acknowledges the “weeding out” feature of grading that I noted above and admits that it has some force with regard to adults. But law students, he contends are not adults: “Most of our students are not adults; they are adolescents.” It is “well accepted,” he writes, that adolescence continues into the mid-twenties. Since most law students graduate in their mid-twenties, it follows that giving them low grades is adolescent abuse.

You can tell when a lawyer is grasping at straws. I doubt that any other law professor regards his students as adolescents. But even if we agreed that law students are still adolescents, why shouldn’t adolescents get accurate feedback on how their work compares with that of other students?

So I’m not persuaded by the psychological harm argument either.

A good lawyer always tries to think of possible objections to his case and Silverstein does just that. Among the counter-arguments he attempts to head off is that by eliminating Cs, we compress the grading scale and thereby reduce the utility of grades in conveying where students stand in relation to each other. There are still plenty of gradations from A+ to B- for that, Silverstein argues, and more if a school uses numerical grades.

If a law school using letter grades insists that professors follow his admonition and only give Cs for failing work, they have only six choices, ranging from A+ for students who display exceptional knowledge of the course material, down to B- for those whose exam is weak but barely passing.  Put that on a normal curve and it means that the great bulk of grades will be A- and B+.

While distinctions among students are still possible, many students will get the same grade (B+ for instance) when their work varies substantially in quality. Squeezing a lot of students into a narrow grading range creates new “fairness” problems.

What are the consequences of adopting Silverstein’s “kinder and gentler” approach to grading?

On the plus side, a small number of students like Arnie who graduate from formerly traditional grading law schools might be able to find legal employment because their GPAs look better.  That benefit, however, would be offset by an equal number of law grads who will lose out to them. There aren’t enough law jobs for all the graduates. We have a zero-sum game here. Whatever injustice there is in the system is merely redistributed.

On the other side of the ledger, Silverstein’s approach would aggravate a problem that’s already widespread throughout our education system—giving students “good” grades to keep them happy, optimistic, and enrolled.

Grade inflation is a bad thing because it shields students from unpleasant realities. That is just as true for marginal law students as it is for academically weak and disengaged undergrads.