Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Thursday, February 27, 2003

We've had grades for two weeks now, and still, the "grades are random" / "no they're not" conversation pops up pretty often. I'm tired of not having anything of any value to contribute on the subject, so I'm hoping that writing about it will at least help me figure out my thoughts.

My opinion: they're not exactly random. I have full confidence that professors are able to rank exams in terms of how well students answered the questions and create a pretty accurate ordering. The real trouble occurs on two levels: (1) where to draw the lines between grades, and (2) what the exams are measuring. (1) is an unavoidable hazard. The lines have to be drawn somewhere. Some exams have to be on the border and fall one way or the other. And even though there's a pretty big difference between an A- and a B+, or a B+ and a B, I'm willing to accept the reality that your exam might be 1% worse than the one slightly better, and you get a grade that looks a lot more than 1% just because there are only 5 (maybe 6 or 7, depending on whether the A+ or the C are in play) different grades you can get. (2) is at first glance slightly more troubling, just because measuring us once, on one set of questions, on one day, and through one professor's eyes, is hard. And people have off days. And maybe it's measuring test-taking ability as much as it is subject knowledge. And maybe some people are better at faking it. And maybe there's luck in whether you spend your limited word count on the things the professor wants you to write or you focus on other issues that may be equally interesting and valuable but just aren't what's being looked for. And those are all good arguments. But on the flipside is the thought that in the real world, all of those skills that help you "beat the test" can help you "beat the judge" or "beat your boss" and it's not so absurd to be grading on them -- maybe people who can fake an answer that convinces a law professor they know what they're talking about can fake a judge into thinking his client is right. A valuable lawyering skill. Maybe clear presentation that overcomes lack of content isn't necessarily something bad to reward. Maybe knowing, or at least being able to sense, what someone is looking for, even when there are lots of things you can choose to focus on, is a valuable lawyering skill. Maybe being able to shine even on an off-day is something they should want to encourage in the grading process. So I'm not so sold on the one test-one grade system being so awful, since the real world often judges people in the same way. I'm not sure if that makes any sense, but I think it's at least a reasonable contribution to next time I'm in the "grades are random" discussion and want something else to do besides sigh and roll my eyes.