TDot’s Mailbag v7.0: Legal Eagle Grading Edition

Posted by T. Greg Doucette on Jun 22, 2011 in Mail | Subscribe

I know y’all, it’s been well over a week since my last entry where I said I’d have this entry ready to roll  “on Monday or Tuesday this coming week” — I’d give you an excuse, but you can probably already guess what it is.1 :beatup:

So can we all just pretend that when I said “this coming week” I meant the week after the week that was actually coming at the time? Yes? Great. :*

Although I’ve gotten a smattering of questions from current and prospective students in the 10 months since I last put one of these entries together, the bulk of them were so über-fact-specific that they weren’t really suitable candidates for including on the blawg. But with end-of-1L grades getting released and folks experiencing the same shellshocked reactions I saw firsthand last year, there’s been renewed interest in how NCCU Law handles grading, curving, dismissal and so on.

So, without further ado, here are your questions — answered.

***

Q: William2 asks:

Just read your entry on making Dean’s List again. But grades don’t matter right? :P

A: If you read that Dean’s List entry, then hopefully it meant you also read this footnote written in anticipation of an email just like the one you sent  :angel:

Needless to say, I stand by my earlier commentary. Most grades at most law schools get determined by a single final exam, or a combination of a final preceded by a midterm.  These aren’t like grades in undergrad or high school or even how you’d be “graded” on a job, where you’re given multiple assignments over a given timeframe and tested on things like time management and ingenuity in addition to raw knowledge.

Now I realize there are few absolutes in life — in some cases good grades are genuinely a sign that someone’s a legal genius who will make a phenomenal attorney, and in some cases bad grades are genuinely a sign that someone just doesn’t “get it” and would end up as a Joseph Rakofsky-grade incompetent if they were given a law license.

But for the overwhelming majority of the however-many-thousands of people graduating law school every year, including here at NCCU Law, a string of subjectively-scored 1-time 3-hour exams is a meaningless measurement of someone’s skill and potential as a lawyer.

That rule applies to me too. My excitement over making Dean’s List this past Fall and again in the Spring had nothing at all to do with some misplaced belief that I’ll make an amazing litigator as a result. I just derive great joy from getting to disabuse people of their mistaken beliefs, including the higher-ranked classmates, friends at other schools, and occasional professors who all made the mistake of concluding I was an inept buffoon because I spent my 1L year saving students millions of dollars instead of worrying about my classes ;)

***

The answers to the next two questions are rooted in the same background, so I’m pairing them together –

Q: Danielle asks:

Why is our curve so ridiculously low? And we don’t have A+’s?

Q: And Kevin asks:

What’s the rationale on the dismissal policy?

A: NCCU Law‘s strict-C curve and its 2.0-or-out dismissal policy are both byproducts of being what the administration labels “a school of opportunity.”

Remember that NCCU Law was created by the N.C. General Assembly way back in 1939, an era when de jure segregation was the reality across the country.3 The politicians created the law school specifically so that aspiring black attorneys could get a “separate but equal” legal education without trying to attend a white law school.4

The only other public law school in the state, UNCCH Law, wouldn’t accept black students until forced to do so by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in a 1951 lawsuit challenging its admissions practices.5 Private Duke Law and WFU Law wouldn’t desegregate until the 1960s. Campbell Law, Elon Law, and Charlotte Law didn’t exist. And even if a black student managed to graduate and pass the bar exam, they were still categorically denied admission to influential industry groups like the N.C. Bar Association.

This second-class status for black attorneys and black law students was reflected in the Legislature’s second-hand funding for “the Negros’ law school,” as NCCU Law grappled with an inadequate building, a minimal law library, few faculty and related problems. As an example, for a good chunk of the law school’s history its law library was stocked with the out-of-date books discarded by the neighboring law schools at UNCCH and Duke.  :surprised:

The point of noting all that background is to highlight that NCCU Law was created to educate students that other schools wouldn’t take; it’s part of our law school’s DNA. That legacy is reflected in the admissions data: even today our GPA and LSAT scores of admitted students are among the very lowest in the country (we’re functionally tied at the bottom with 2 other HBCUs, FAMU Law and Southern Law). The law school views its job as providing an opportunity to people who are willing to take advantage of it, regardless of how they “measure up” on paper.

Which finally brings me around to the questions at hand :beatup:  From a philosophical perspective, the strict-C curve exists because the faculty believe (and I agree) that it’s the best way to gauge student performance. And from a practical perspective, law schools bumping their curves use the Lake Wobegon defense6 as a smokescreen — something that can’t credibly be done with our mission and legacy.  The curve ensures students have earned the grades they get.

Working in tandem with the curve but serving a slightly different purpose, the law school’s policy of dismissing students if they fall below a 2.0 at the end of any year is designed to “separate the chaff from the wheat” as the Biblical saying goes.  Since it’s statistically possible for every student to make a 2.0 or above, and the school is taking what it considers a “calculated risk” by admitting students whose quantitative credentials wouldn’t get them in elsewhere, the assumption is that someone who doesn’t hit a 2.0 (and hasn’t already withdrawn before Spring final exams) must not be taking their educational opportunity seriously enough to continue. So those folks get a letter telling them they’ve been dismissed and then have to wait at least a year before they can petition to return.

***

Q: Nina asks:

How exactly does the dismissal policy work, as far as coming back goes?

A: The dismissal policy and petition process can both be found in the Student Handbook distributed to 1Ls each year (in the 2010-11 edition it’s in §1.09).  Basically only 1Ls who have between 1.8-1.999 are eligible to petition for readmission; if a student’s GPA is below 1.8, their only option is to reapply as a completely brand new student at least 2 or more years after their dismissal.

For eligible students, they get 1 chance to submit a petition to the Standards Committee for readmission the year after they are dismissed. To quote from the policy, the petition must “demonstrate that extraordinary circumstances resulted in his/her substandard academic performance.  Extraordinary circumstances are those that do not ordinarily occur.  Financial concerns, employment obligations, family illness or commuting distances normally involve no element of extraordinary circumstances.  The petitioner must demonstrate that the extraordinary circumstances have been resolved and that, if re-admitted, he or she will be able to successfully handle the rigors of legal education.”

Following review of the petition and an optional presentation by the petitioner in person, the members of the Committee vote on whether or not the student should be reinstated the following Fall semester. Decisions on reinstatement are usually released in mid-June.

***

Q: Susan asks:

What are the GPA cutoffs for honors? Dean’s List? Do we get notified?

A: You can find the listings for academic honors on this page of the NCCU Law website.  Cum laude requires a GPA of 3.000 to 3.299, magna cum laude is from 3.300 to 3.499, and summa cum laude is 3.500 and above. All of those are of course based on your GPA at the time of graduation.

The Dean’s List is compiled on a per-semester basis, and includes all students who earn a 3.0 and above. Students on Dean’s List can get a certificate from the Registrar’s Office upon request, a lapel pin from the NCCU main campus in the week before Convocation, and will have their name included on the massive posters created by main campus listing everyone at the entire University who made Dean’s List each semester.

And it’s up to each student to know whether or not they made Dean’s List on their own; there is no individualized “Hey btw you made Dean’s List!” emails or anything like that :P

***

That’s it for this entry y’all :) Thanks again to all of you for your continued support of law:/dev/null, and if you have any questions don’t hesitate to send an email to tdot [at] lawdevnull.com! :D

—===—

From the Mailbag archives:

  • TDot’s Mailbag v6.0: 1L Questions Edition
    • Do we really need to study 60 hours a week?
    • My study partners study all day; am I missing something?
    • How time-consuming is being an SBA Representative?
    • Should I use “canned” briefs or create my own?
    • Is law school really just a big head game?
    • What’s the biggest difference between 1L year and 2L year?
    • What made you pursue law after having done computer science?
  • TDot’s Mailbag v5.0: What Law School’s Really Like
    • Admissions?
    • Bar Exam?
    • The Work?
    • Professors?
    • Electives?
    • Extracurriculars?
    • What would you do differently?
  • TDot’s Mailbag v4.0
    • What really made you dislike BigLaw?
    • Why were 2 of the top 4 teams in the K-S competition from T4s?
    • What happened to Tweet-sized Tuesdays and the Friday Drive-by?
    • How did your CivPro I final exam turn out?
  • TDot’s Mailbag v3.0
    • What’s your email address?
    • Do you really send/receive thousands of text messages in a month?
    • How are you adjusting to a historically black university?
    • Are you really a Republican?
  • TDot’s Mailbag v2.0
    • Did you have a bunch of study materials for the LSAT?
    • How well did you do on the LSAT?
    • How did you do in your election for 1L SBA Rep?
    • Who is in the Gang of Eight?
  • TDot’s Mailbag v1.0
    • What does law:/dev/null mean?
    • Did your entry about That Guy really happen?
    • Did you really count the lights from your apartment to school?
  1. Here’s a hint: it rhymes with “fool.” Totally coincidental. :beatup: []
  2. For the new folks, I keep the names on these submissions anonymous (picked at random from the Social Security Administration’s Popular Names database) so feel free to send me an email if you’ve got a question but don’t want to risk having your name in print :) []
  3. A point politely ignored by nearly every law school nationwide even as they dole out admission to legacy applicants of alums who benefited from segregationist admission policies. []
  4. As otherwise would have been required by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337 (1938), which held that states providing education for white students either needed to admit blacks or provide a “separate but equal” education for them. []
  5. McKissick v. Carmichael, 187 F.2d 949 (4th Cir. 1951), reversing Epps v. Carmichael, 93 F.Supp. 327 (M.D.N.C. 1950). And even then UNCCH only accepted students who had already completed their first 2 years at NCCU. Admitting blacks as incoming 1Ls wouldn’t occur until later, and the rest of campus wouldn’t be desegregated until a post-Brown decision handed down in Frasier v. Board of Trustees of Univ. of N.C., 134 F.Supp. 589 (M.D.N.C. 1955).  []
  6. They admit students with higher GPAs/LSATs, and therefore “all of our students are above average.” Even though we all know the main motivation behind bumping curves is to artificially make graduates appear more competitive in the job market. :roll: []

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4 Comments

New Kid on the Hallway
Jun 23, 2011 at 10:48 AM

Okay, I gotta ask: if one 3-hour exam at the end of the semester is a meaningless way to evaluate someone’s overall ability (which I tend to agree with, actually), then why are grades the best way to gauge performance for the dismissal policy?


 
TDot
Jun 23, 2011 at 11:35 AM

I personally don’t think it is — although I’m a big fan of the curve, I don’t agree with the dismissal policy at all.

Part of me understands the rationale, the whole “we’re taking a chance on you so prove you can handle it or get out” thing. But I’ve also seen a lot of 1Ls dig themselves into a hole in the Fall (when they’re still getting acclimated) that’s just too steep for them to climb out of in the Spring, or face significant personal problems in either semester that they (incorrectly) think they can handle without it impacting their grades.

If I had my druthers, folks with GPAs below the threshold would be put on a probationary status and enrolled in some intensive summer program to help address whatever issues they’ve got, then given 1 more semester to show some improvement.

But that’s also probably why I don’t get a say on stuff like this :beatup:


 
Va.
Jun 24, 2011 at 6:41 PM

The main issue with exams is that all exams aren’t created equal (and neither are all professors, quite frankly). Regurgitating laws or exact language is fairly unimportant for the practice of law. (When is anything in the law, other than the bar exam, closed book?) On the other hand, exams that test skills (analytic skills, writing, reading comprehension, etc.) and whether your understanding of the law when you read it may actually indicate something about how good you’ll be as a lawyer. The other problem is that different kinds of lawyers need different kinds of skills. Reading and writing is about the only thing that ALL lawyers need to do well. But even then, corporate lawyers usually do a great deal less writing than litigators, etc.

However, enforcing some kind of minimum threshhold is the point of a profession. There’s an obligation of minimum competency for our clients. Now whether it’s the character & fitness committee, the bar exam, law school exams & grading, law school admissions & accreditations, law school admissions tests that should set the minimum threshold is debatable.

It also may be a bit benevolent to assume that the law school is weeding out the poorest students for only the sake of the profession, though. Dismissing students likely ups bar passage rates and employment figures (which in turn game the ratings and accreditation renewal process). Besides, 1Ls are likely cheaper for a school than 2Ls & 3Ls because of class size and limited course selection as a 1L.


 
TDot
Jun 26, 2011 at 1:15 PM

I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some collateral benefit to the law school when it comes to reaccreditation, but the policy of booting below-C students has been around for so long (and we’ve been in the unranked Tier IV the entire time) that I’m skeptical it’s a significant motivator. Money might be an issue for private schools, but at least in NC enrollment targets for NCCU Law and UNCCH Law are legislated from on high by the General Assembly so the law school itself has little discretion.

As for where in the spectrum enforcing minimum competency should take place, I’d argue it should happen before and after law school — through admissions on the front end, and C&F + bar exam on the back end — rather than in the middle, simply because there’s greater room for considering all the circumstances. Even with my undergrad GPA, I had multiple options for law school based on my LSAT score and work experience. The C&F folks at the Board of Law Examiners provide ample opportunity to explain any issues. And although the bar exam is still an exam, everyone takes the same one regardless of the law school (and typically using the same bar prep packages) so the argument can be made that you sink or swim based on your own merit.

Stopping folks from ever getting to that opportunity just strikes me as wrong.


 

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