NPR logo The Law School Where Every Student's GPA Just Increased

The Law School Where Every Student's GPA Just Increased

Loyola Law School in Los Angeles is retroactively increasing all of its current students' grades. That C+ from last year is now a B-. Everybody's GPA just went up by 0.333. Magic!

The school says that it's been grading on a harder curve than almost all the other law schools in California, so its students have been at an unfair disadvantage.

The shift is a reminder of an economic idea called "signaling." It holds that education is important not only because of whatever facts students learn, but also because educational credentials are a way for candidates to signal to potential employers that they are likely to be productive workers. An economist named Michael Spence won a Nobel in part for showing that signaling would work even if education itself did not make people more productive workers.

Anyway. I asked the communications office at Loyola for a copy of the dean's letter that went out last month explaining the grade hikes. Here it is:

Last week the faculty approved a proposal to modify the grading system. The change will boost by one step the letter grades assigned at each level of our mandatory curve. For example, what previously was a B- would be a B, what previously was a B would be a B+, and so forth. All other academic standards based on grades, such as the probation and disqualification thresholds, are also adjusted upwards by the same magnitude. For reasons that will be explained below, these changes are retroactive to include all grades that have been earned under the current grading system since it was adopted. This means that all grades already earned by current students will be changed. It also means that all grades going forward will be governed by the new curve. The effect of making the change retroactive will be to increase the GPA of all students by .333. The change will not alter relative class rank since the GPA of all students will be moved up by the same amount.

Reasons for Change

I asked the faculty to make this change for two reasons. First, grades provide information about our students and our academic program. Employers and external sources of scholarship dollars pay very careful attention to this information. The information conveyed by the old grading curve did not accurately convey the high quality of our students. Over the last several years our students have improved significantly as measured by all the usual standards of academic accomplishment. In 1999, the undergraduate GPA for the 25th/75th percentiles of our first year class was 3.00-3.50 and the LSAT was 154/160. In 2009 the GPA was 3.17-3.61 and the LSAT was 158-163. Just 70% of our 1999 graduates passed the July bar exam on the first attempt. Over 85% of our 2009 graduates passed on the first try.

Second, many other schools already have moved their curves higher than ours to give their students an advantage in this difficult job market. In fact, before this change, only one other accredited California law school had a mean grade for first year classes as low as ours. Without adjusting our curve, we send an inaccurate message to employers about the comparative quality of our students and put them at an unfair competitive disadvantage. Since we are adjusting our curve well after many other schools in our region already moved their curves higher, our faculty decided it was important to make this adjustment retroactive.

How Our Grading System Works

To understand the change, it is important first to understand how our grading system works and why we have such a system. In short, our system imposes in almost all classes a mandatory mean grade. It also imposes a mandatory standard deviation that controls the distribution of grades both above and below the mean. These mandatory standards limit professor discretion but provide a measure of uniformity between courses and professors.

Mandatory means and standard deviations. Once a faculty member determines the raw scores achieved by students in a class, those scores must be "normalized." In almost all cases this is done by converting those raw scores to a range between 55 and 100 and then imposing a mandatory mean and standard deviation on that range. All first year courses have a mandatory mean of 81 and a mandatory standard deviation of 6, with the exception of Legal Research and writing, which may use a standard deviation of between 4 and 6. The vast majority of our advanced courses have the mandatory means and mandatory standard deviations reflected in the chart below.













Number of students



Mean



S.D.



31 or more students



82.00



6.00



8-30 students



82-85



None



7 or fewer students



None



None



Conversion of number scores to letter grades . Once raw scores are "normalized" they are converted to letter grades. The minimum passing grade is 70, with some exceptions. Grades between 55 and 69 are considered failing grades for which unit credit is not earned. While unit credit is not earned for a failing grade, point value is assigned for a D for purposes of computing grade point averages. Here is the grading curve as it stood at the beginning of this year.













Numerical Score



Letter Grade



GPA Value



55-66



F



0



67-69



D



1.0



70-72



C-



1.667



73-75



C



2.0



76-78



C+



2.333



79-81



B-



2.667



82-84



B



3.0



85-87



B+



3.333



88-90



A-



3.667



91-93



A



4.0



94-100



A+



4.333


Student cumulative GPA is calculated based on the GPA value assigned to letter grades in this chart. Rank is determined by cumulative GPA, not by the average of a student's numerical scores. For purposes of considering the change we have made to the curve, it is important to keep in mind this relationship between rank and cumulative GPA. This relationship means that, to raise the curve retroactively without changing anyone's rank, all letter grade steps in the curve must be raised and all must be raised by essentially the same GPA value.

The New Curve

As the chart below indicates, each step in the letter grade scale has been moved up one level (with the exception that the C- designation has simply been eliminated). For example, a B- under the old system becomes a B under the new system, a B becomes a B+, and so forth. The "normalization" rules that take raw scores and force them into a 55-100 range with a mandatory mean and standard deviation, thereby producing the Numerical Score, remain unchanged.













Numerical Score



Letter Grade



GPA Value



55-66



F



.333



67-69



D



1.333



70-72



C



2.0



73-75



C+



2.333



76-78



B-



2.667



79-81



B



3.0



82-84



B+



3.333



85-87



A-



3.667



88-90



A



4.0



91-93



A+



4.333



94-100



A+*



4.667


Note that the highest grade in the new curve is still called A+, as is the second to the highest grade. This is because there is no commonly accepted symbol for a grade above that level. While most grades of A+ will receive 4.333 grade points, those A+ grades that earn 4.667 grade points will be accompanied by an asterisk. The asterisk will lead the reader to an explanation on the transcript making clear that, as a result of the change in the curve we have now implemented, there are two possible grade point values for an A+. By way of comparison, USC Law School employs a system that allows for several different grade point values above 4.0.

Implementation of Changes

Grades appearing on student transcripts will be changed to reflect the new curve. The Dean's office is working with the Office of the Registrar and the Information Technology Department to implement these changes on transcripts as soon as possible. We will send out another notice once we have confirmed the implementation date.

Hat tip: Above the Law via Economix

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