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February 20, 2007

You Are Not Your GPA

Once again, we bring you the second of two issues that keep our readership faithful throughout the school year; grade curves for last semester start on page 14. As usual, we debated replacing them with an extra spread of bar night photos in the hope that no one would spend hours and days waxing and waning through the inevitable cycle of smugness and despair, but decided the inevitable e-mail backlash wasn’t worth the hassle.

So, enjoy. If the lurid temptation of raw statistical self-torture hasn’t already swallowed you whole and you’re still reading this editorial, we have full faith that your curiosity will devour you before the end of the day. We have long since given up any illusions that a critical mass of readers will ignore the grade curves and just keep living their lives. We do not actually wish to suppress the publication of the grade curves; any sliver of transparency that can be shed into the otherwise murky, zero-sum game of grades is helpful and necessary. It’s just that they are wont to draw much, much more attention than they deserve.

The current paradigm of law school instruction and grading is virtually feedback-free. Setting aside the extent to which this approach might be pedagogically unsound, we can’t help but notice that any shred of feedback on students’ performance that comes into view is greedily gobbled before it can hit the plate. Of course it is – we are all starved for some confirmation that what we do and the way we do it is good, right, correct, sufficient, etc. Seeing the grade curve for a class can help place your grade in context, which is valuable since a B+ exists not in moonless outer space but rather in the thick of the curve. Even those who know and understand the suggested grade distributions can benefit from occasionally seeing the curve take shape, especially during 1L year.

But context has limited utility. It is essentially impossible to get a grade changed at the Law School; changes are only granted if there is a quantitative error in the calculation of the grade. The overwhelming majority of transcripts may as well be carved in stone, because the grades will stand. This is a good thing; opening pro fessors to the puppy-eyed wiles of disappointed law students would not serve anyone’s best interest. So, does it matter if your grade was better than 16 people as opposed to 25? The grade will stay the same. Firms, judges, and fellowship committees will most likely view a transcript as a transcript, not a cog in a giant grade curve. And, while it is helpful to gain perspective on the nature and behavior of the grade curve, the utility gained by this perspective is quick to expire. No one is willing or able to give weight to a complaint of “but surely there aren’t TWENTY people in the class who can outperform me,” and few of our grades’ future uses can be accompanied by an explanatory spreadsheet.

Please, resist the urge to use these grade curves to rend apart the fibers of your confidence. We offer them as informational tools and nothing more. They will not help you be a better student, lose weight, win friends, or influence people. They will not whiten your teeth or airbrush your skin. They will only contextualize the grades you have already earned. We would say more, but we are late for the funeral of a poor, poor horse.