A California Law School Will Raise All Students' Grades

April 01, 2010

Current students and recent graduates of Loyola Law School Los Angeles will soon see their grade-point averages climb by one-third of a point.

The school is modifying its grading system, its dean, Victor J. Gold, said on Thursday, to help students remain competitive with graduates of other California law schools, which it believes already grade on a higher curve. Each of the current letter-based grades at Loyola will be raised one step, bringing an A- to an A, and an A to an A+, for example.

Mr. Gold said the new curve would better represent the academic quality of the law school's graduates, compared with those of other schools.

"We concluded that the grading curve was sending incorrect information about our students, and, frankly, it was putting them at an unfair competitive disadvantage in a pretty tough job market," he said.

Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke University professor who has studied grade inflation and created an online database about it, said that changes like Loyola's can open more job opportunities for students.

"There are employers that have GPA cutoffs," he said, "and by inflating grades, you increase the number of students who meet those GPA cutoffs."

Mr. Rojstaczer, who was an associate professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke, is a co-author of a recent article, "Grading in American Colleges and Universities," that analyzed grading patterns since the 1960s. The article—written with Christopher Healy, an associate professor of computer science at Furman University, and published last month in Teachers College Record—noted an overall increase of about a tenth of a point in average GPA's per decade.

Loyola's change will affect current students and alumni who graduated in 2007 or later—the classes that received grades based on a letter-grade system beginning in 2004. Before 2004, the law school operated under a numerical grading system.

Mr. Gold announced the faculty's approval of the new grading system in a memorandum to students last month. That memo found its way onto several blogs this week, including Above the Law and NPR's Planet Money, where it was greeted with considerable skepticism.

But Mr. Gold defended the revised grading curve as more accurately reflecting the institution's academic rigor. Indicators show that its students are "among the highest-quality students," the dean said. With a passage rate of 85 percent among students taking the bar exam last summer, the law school ranked seventh out of the 20 California law schools approved by the American Bar Association.

Although employers often gauge law students' academic achievement based on their class rank, Mr. Gold said, some governmental agencies will not consider hiring students with less than a B average.

"And when you start out your students with an average of B-, which is what our old first-year grade average was, you automatically exclude them from employment with those agencies," he said.

"We're not trying to make them look better than other comparable students at other schools. We just want them to be on an even playing field."