Ultra Vires


The New Grading System Receives a Pass – Barely

Just in case you’ve been hiding under a rock (and haven’t read any of the rest of this paper), the grading scheme at the U of T law school is about to change. The broad overview: instead of providing professors with a mean and nothing else, there will be mandated distributions of approximately15% HH, 30% H, with the rest being distributed between P, LP, and F. Oh, and the names of grades changed, which is apparently the only part of this that the Toronto Star ever cared about.

So is the new system better than the old? Yes – almost everything is better than giving professors an extraordinary amount of discretion with regard to how they scale grades, but not giving them any discretion with regard to the mean. This previously led to the familiar phenomena of professors who ‘clumped’ grades (handed out very few As or Cs) or ‘spread’ grades (handed out comparatively fewer Bs). However, ‘is it better than the old system?’ is not a very good scale on which to assess new systems. The real question is, “Is the new system the best that we can come up with?”

There are positive things about the new system. For one thing, the number of LPs and Fs that professors hand out is (basically) independent of the number of Ps, Hs, and HHs. This will mean that professors will not feel that they cannot hand out higher – or lower – grades without failing or passing another students. This means that professors may be able to more accurately reflect student performance in assigned grades.

However, there are many problems. One of the problems is that we now have a mandated distribution of HH and H. So for one thing, forget about the idea that grade inflation doesn’t exist at UT Law – it does now. In the past, trying to give 45% of people in the class a B+ or an A made it much more likely that a lot of people would have to get Cs; that no longer has to be the case.

A bigger problem arises because they’re assuming that every class will have roughly the same number of high achievers, and don’t reward professors that may teach classes better. This is especially a problem for smaller classes. Grade distributions are based off the idea of large classes actually representing a ‘normal’ distribution – the idea that in a statistically valid sample, some people will perform better than others and others will perform worse. This makes sense in large classes that are (1) statistically valid in terms of sample size (normally meaning that they have at least 30 people); and (2) mandatory or that everyone takes. They do not make sense for small classes that people opt into, meaning that they have a special interest in these classes – it means that in general, a student must be much more competent and work harder to get a higher grade in a more focused, smaller class than in a general, larger class.

There are ways to make the new system even better. It would probably be better to exempt small group classes from these requirements and trust the professors to grade properly. In large classes, we could combat grade inflation by mandating both a mean and an approximate standard deviation rather than making LPs and Fs discretionary.

Recent Stories