Forced Mean is a Catch-22 in Smaller Classes

by Mike Ruttle

           Would you take a class if your grade were pre-determined? Me neither. What about if you knew that it was very, VERY unlikely to get an “A” in the class? I didn’t think so. Nevertheless, that is exactly what happens in smaller classes where Professors are forced to comply with the school’s “forced mean” policy.

            What do I mean by a “forced mean”? Allow me to explain. Whittier’s grading policy says that “upper-level courses with fewer than twenty-one students … are not subject to distribution requirements, [meaning the professor doesn’t “have to” give a certain number of “As” or “Bs” etc.] … [However], the mean for final grades for all upper-level courses, except seminars, shall be standardized within the range of 2.5-2.875 points.” Whittier Law School Policies 2010-2011 B10-11 (emphasis added). The policy then goes on to discuss some elaborate formula used “for the sole purposes of computing the mean.” My question is simply, what’s the point? Why are grades in smaller classes “forced” to have a “C” average. I’ve heard the word “fairness” thrown around, but nothing about this seems fair to me.

            I think it is safe to say that most upper-level courses are non-bar electives that students want to take because they have a particular interest in learning that area of the law. Yet, in smaller classes the professor is forced to comply with this policy. That means that one student who earns a 3.6, or an “A-” is balanced out by another student who receives a 2.15, or a “D-” to stay within the upper end of the required mean. Professors can petition the Academic Standards Committee (“ASC”) so that they are not forced to comply with the mean, but based on what other students have told me about their experiences, those petitions are usually denied and the student’s grades suffer as a result.

            This brings me to my main point. Many electives have only a few students. This semester, I am taking a very interesting course with only four (4) students. I thought the idea of giving us the option to take electives was to give us a chance to study areas of the law we find interesting and pursue a concentration. However, knowing about this system, I was recently faced with a Catch-22. Option 1: take a course where I’m interested in the subject, knowing that my chances of a high grade are dismal, unless my professor’s petition is granted by the ASC (see above). Option 2: drop a course and miss out on a valuable learning opportunity because I don’t want to risk my GPA taking a severe blow. Reluctantly, I chose the former.

            Am I being over-dramatic? Before you answer, consider the fact that one 3L (on the Honor Roll) told me she recently received the lowest grade ever in law school as a result of this system. Consider the fact that another 3L (also on the Honor Roll) told me she has come to “accept the fact that [she] will receive lower grades than [she] earned in undergrad.” Consider the fact that another student was disqualified from an externship opportunity after his professor’s petition to the ASC was (allegedly) denied and this student’s grade in the class went from a 3.8 to a 3.0. Am I still being over-dramatic?

            In larger classes, perhaps there is a stronger argument for curved grading, and a forced mean. But in smaller classes with only a few students, I fail to see how grades that accurately reflect a student’s performance in the class is “unfair.”I have been told that a forced mean is “absolutely necessary to promote fairness” without further explanation. I am inviting anyone to please explain to me how this system works, because I frankly do not understand.

            I am not asking that all professors hand out “As” like candy at Halloween. Nor am I asking that Whittier should do away with curved grading entirely because 1) I know that will never happen; 2) a forced mean makes [a little] more sense in larger classes; and 3) curved grading is said to be required of all ABA-accredited law schools. What I am merely asking for is a system that accurately reflects a student’s aptitude. When a student earns an “A,” but receives a “B-” or even a “C+” there is something inherently wrong with that system.

            If that seems too much to ask, then at the very least I invite anyone to please write a response to this article explaining to all Whittier students why this system is “fair.”  One thing I have definitely learned in my time here is that there are two sides to every issue and I am open to seeing the other side of this issue. Unfortunately, I am unable to see how a system that can arbitrarily lower a student’s GPA and not reflect their aptitude is fair.


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