December 19, 2009

NYU law school exam screwup.

Picture it. You're a first-year law student, knocking yourself out studying for your first round of exams. You're striving along with everyone else for rank in class in a time when jobs are hard to get and tuition is still painfully high. Your grade in Contracts is vitally important...
"I am writing to you about a serious issue that has emerged with respect to Professor Nzelibe’s contracts exam, which was held yesterday. After the exam we were contacted by some students to tell us that the exam consisted of two questions that had both been distributed by Professor Nzelibe to his contracts class at Northwestern last year as practice questions. This is a clear violation of explicit NYU School of Law policy. We know that some students in your class had seen and worked through both questions, and some other students had seen one of the questions."
Exams are graded on a curve, and some of the students you're competing with have seen and worked on the very questions that appear on the exam. Now what? 1. Take another exam, which means putting in another round of studying and worrying that will eat into next semester's energy (and cast a pall on your winter break)? 2. Give everyone in the class a pass/fail grade, which has an effect — though possibly a good one — on your GPA compared to students with other Contracts teachers? 3. Or just have Professor Nzelibe grade the exams as if nothing had ever happened?

#2 seems most fair. It mainly hurts the students who would have done best in Contracts. Maybe they worked hardest in that class or understood the material particularly well. That was the grade that would have pulled up their GPA. It's a windfall for the students who had their biggest problems with Contracts, but basically, no one has to do anymore work and everyone still has a GPA. But they will have a "pass" grade on their transcript they'll have to explain over and over. And this is the option that makes life easiest for the professor. He doesn't have to write another exam, and the work of grading — the least enjoyable part of a lawprof's work — becomes a snap.

So how about a hybrid of ##2&3? The students submit a form choosing whether they want their grade or a Pass/Fail, the professor grades all the exams in the normal way, and the grades are entered as Pass/Fail if the student chose that option. The problem with this is that the students who got the advantage will decline the Pass/Fail option, and their grades, curved against the other students, will reflect the advantage they got. And students who would have gotten their worst grade in Contracts if there had never been a screwup get to exclude that bad grade. So, on average, the students who had Professor Nzelibe will have better GPAs than the students who did not have him. This will affect the job prospects of all of those students.

There is no good solution.

31 comments:

Joe Giles said...

And what should be done with the Professor?

Photog714 said...

How about ...

4) Expel the whole class and fire the instructor because we already have too many goddamn lawyers.

rdkraus said...

Joe

My thought exactly.

And anyone who has been in law school and worked their ass off, and not gotten the questions in advance is screwed. The best-hardest working student will take the hit.

Yeeeeech.

jSinSaTx said...

Why not simply a) discipline the professor and b) switch all contracts grades for that year to pass/fail regardless of teacher. While it does not remove the advantage that the lower students would gain it would at least not localize the gain and losses to one class. What is the average grade in law school anyway? Is it as inflated as colleges in general? Harvard is notorious for this.

jayne_cobb said...

I can't say I ever had a professor screw up as badly as that, but I did have one give everybody the wrong grades for a final.

We were two months into the next semester before we finally got our real grades in that class.

former law student said...

A similar thing happened to some of my 1L buddies, but I don't know how it was resolved. The professor reused a question from an exam he gave 15-20 years before. About a third of the class had written answers to every exam on file in the library, so they were able to quickly redo their analysis. However, their practice answer might have sucked, anyways, because if anyone had gone over his answer with the Prof, surely the Prof would not have assigned it on the exam.

The Prof had been teaching for over 40 years, and retired that summer.

Skipper50 said...

Recognize the inherit corruption of the law and go to med school.

Rialby said...

Something kind of like this happened to me in my MBA program. One of the professors consistently pulled graded homework assignments and test questions directly from the internet. In a class of 15, graded on a curve, the difference between 95 and 85 on one test or homework assigment made the difference between an A and a B. He was reported by more than one student but no action was taken.

Bill said...

Grades are over-emphasized, and this is a good illustration of that. Years ago some schools-- Yale was one, and Buffalo was another-- had a modified pass/fail system that worked well. The grade scale ran from F to D (fail; pass with minimally acceptable work) to Q (Qualified) to H (Honors). H work, representing the top of the bell curve, was outstanding-- and, for the most part, rare. The Q covered everything from a C- to an A-. Some grade-grubbing students hated this, but the reality is that it was liberating for most students and for the faculty.

It's too late for the NYU students, but they should probably get over it. It's one grade in what will probably be a long career. I'm not so sure I even believe that the students who saw the question in advance had any meaningful advantage. Everyone had to do the same analysis, everyone had to write a coherent exam answer. It looks like no harm/no foul to me.

Elliott A said...

Back in the dark ages, when I was in my senior year of college, I missed a final exam due to illness. I had an extra week to study for the exam. I took the exam in the Professor's office at his big desk, instead of at a small little desk like everyone else. This is important since the class was Finance Theory and involved calculations and scratch paper which I had room to spread out.
The professor was a very smart guy who used statistical analysis to group the grades into statistical classes. The top group were the A's, the next B's, etc. The following day, I went to his office to see my grade on teh exam, since there was no online world then. He invited me in and said he needed my help with a problem. My grade was so much higher than anyone else in the class that the statistical analysis became skewed. Several students, many of whom were needing a high GPA to get into competitive MBA programs, including the young woman who was #1 in the entire class and headed for Valedictorian, would get B's. He realized, and I agreed that I clearly had an unfair advantage over the others. So, he asked me what I, as a student, thought would be the fair thing for him to do. I thought about one second and then said, "Remove my grade from the sample". I had an A anyway, although I know in Law School there is only the one exam.
So, Professor, I recommend the following: Identify those students whose performance was so good that they likely had the advantage. Give them A's. There probably weren't enough of them to make the class grades overly high compared to the other professors who teach Contracts. Grade the rest as you usually do. If there are too many A's, ask the Professor of the other Contracts class to adjust the curve so that it is the same and everyone who has a GPA is treated equally. The rank is more important than GPA since each school has different average GPA's.

G Joubert said...

Why is it that a practice test given a year earlier to Northwestern 1L students led to some (but not all) NYU 1L students seeing it a year later? How was it available?

David said...

Sure there's a good solution: grade the exams as submitted. Give credit where credit is due for the ingenuity and due diligence of the students who reviewed the prior exam.

While you are at it, repeal the stupid rule.

But by no means require the dingbat professor to do more work.

Marcia said...

"There is no good solution."

A valuable lesson in itself.

former law student said...

It's one grade in what will probably be a long career.

It's one of a handful of grades that establishes one's ranking for 2L interviews that lead to coveted summer associateships that lead to good jobs upon graduation. Also to law review membership, which big firm partners keep in their bios till their dying days.

But other than that, a 1L Contracts grade is of little consequence, I agree.

Contracts differs from all the other 1L classes because it is linear: Was there an offer, if there was an offer was there acceptance, if there was acceptance, did both sides perform, if there was no contract formed, was there a quasi contract, etc. etc. Other classes are pretty much of a hodgepodge under a general umbrella.

chuck b. said...

Wow that students found practice questions distributed at another university, and wow how lazy a law professor must be (considering how much free time he must have on his hands viz. the example of certain other law professors) that he can't write a few test questions.

Joe Giles said...

See the comment by "former law student" -- if so much is going to depend upon law school grades, law school profs need to get it right.

And Contracts isn't just any ol' class. At my school, it was worth 5 of the semester's 15 credits -- or two and a half times more than the legal writing grade.

Fr Martin Fox said...

Elliot's suggestion sounds good. I'd be interested if anyone could offer a critique as to why it's not a good solution.

Here's my suggestion: if there is a question about accepting the validity of the actual test results, why not have another professor in the field administer an oral exam? It doesn't have to be as rigorous as it would, were there no other; rather, it would simply serve to confirm whether the grade a student received was justified.

Surely the professor administering the exam could take into account the fact that a new semester had begun. And surely, students can be reasonably expected to retain knowledge on a subject a half-semester later? Test that and grade accordingly.

Fr Martin Fox said...

Elliot's suggestion sounds good. I'd be interested if anyone could offer a critique as to why it's not a good solution.

Here's my suggestion: if there is a question about accepting the validity of the actual test results, why not have another professor in the field administer an oral exam? It doesn't have to be as rigorous as it would, were there no other; rather, it would simply serve to confirm whether the grade a student received was justified.

Surely the professor administering the exam could take into account the fact that a new semester had begun. And surely, students can be reasonably expected to retain knowledge on a subject a half-semester later? Test that and grade accordingly.

ark said...

What would have happened if there had been a fire during the exam and the students had to evacuate the exam room? They couldn't go back to the exam afterwards, even if there was time to do so, because they might already have traded information about the exam questions. So the exam would have to be invalidated, and something done about a makeup.

Whatever would have happened in that case should happen in this case, with the possible added wrinkle of disciplinary action against the instructor.

Fat Man said...

In my experience, which admittedly was in a previous millennium, law school exams are very different from those in the sciences (physical, biological, or social). The typical exam question was simply a brief statement of facts and a request for legal analysis. An answer was an essay applying the law to those facts. A good exam question should bring up multiple issues and have plenty of ambiguities, sort of like life itself.

There should not be any "answers" per se, just issues to analyze and arguments to be made and evaluated.

As one of my law school profs once said, if having your notes and books could make any difference on this exam, I would not be doing my job.

Given all of that, the correct answer to Prof. Althouse's question should be number 3.

lyssalovelyredhead said...

If you assume that the exams are severely compromised, then I think that the best answer is to re-do the exam next January. It sucks, but it's the best.

Of course, I aced Contracts I, and the thought of not getting to keep that 4.3 on my record (yeah, that's right) hurts, so I'm pretty sympathetic to those who would have done well.
********

That there's no good solution is a really important lesson in the law, so it's good to teach it early.
***************

Ditto what FLS said about the Contracts I grade being really important. Summer job offers will be made before the end of the second semester, so this is one out of only 5 classes.
**********
Re: Fr. Fox and Elliott's solution: I agree that it sounds good, but I really doubt that it would work for a law exam- they are just too different than other exams. I'm not sure how you could tell the difference between a good student and an advantaged one in this case. Particularly on Contracts, which is pretty formula-based.
*********
On the whole, though, I probably agree with David. First, I'm not sure there was a lot of advantage to the students who got it. Contracts answers basically follow the same formula: offer, acceptance, consideration, etc. (I graded them for a professor last year).

The real advantage would be in time- the students would probably be able to read the question and find the issues more quickly. If he was the sort of professor who used the time pressure against the students, this might make a difference, but a lot of professors try to make sure that there is plenty of time allowed. And the students who studied hard, including looking at old resources (this is common in law school- students usually practice on old exams and practice questions), should get that advantage.

Joseph said...

The professor created this dilemma and should be appropriately sanctioned. Law professors have to write one or two exams per semester. There is no excuse for recycling an old one.

traditionalguy said...

This tempes in a teacup has nothing to do with educating law students in Property Law. It's all about the race for the highest grades. So what it ain't perfect for these poor little grade fanatics next promotion in life. Just learn by reviewing anything you can on the material, and then go out and BE a lawyer. If you are any good, then everyone will find out soon enough. If all you have is a transcript of high grades, then you will fail anyway in due time.

Big Mike said...

Give a 2nd exam (option 1). Put a letter of reprimand in the professor's permanent personnel file and put him on the sort of sh*t committee assignments that they normally dish out to the junior professors for the next three years.

Michael E. Lopez said...

My guess is that the school policies do not explicitly create a right of action for students.

Thus, grade the exams as they are and give some sort of appropriate wristslap to the professor.

Jason said...

Who cares? The question is moot! The Obama Administration totally tore up the Law of Contracts when he intervened in the GM bankruptcy.

Everything we thought we had settled is but an illusion, and now we have only the Law of the Jungle.

Thanks, Obama!

Skyler said...

I think there are too many people worried about petty differences in grades.

There's apparently no way to figure out who got the questions, and even those who got the previous test questions are not guaranteed the best grades.

It's been my experience that the best grades go to those most able to perform and to write and do a thorough analysis. That's the critical part. Just seeing the essay question before is of limited utility. It's not like they knew that the prior question would be used again anyway, so that was only one data point among hundreds of others they had to know.

Get over it, don't be bothered. Grades are good but not absolute. That is, having good grades matters to some people, but for a good job and a good career, there are others that are equally important. One class with a few people who get a few more points is just statistical noise.

former law student said...

A different hybrid of #2 and #3 occurred to me. Let all those who want opt for Pass/Fail, and curve whoever is left. Few will be bold enough to demand a letter grade, because the inexorable curve would turn even an A grade into the bottom grade.

hdhouse said...

Surely a room full of wannabelawyers can find a way to work this out so they all win and the professor looses....and perhaps the issue is the contract test....a brilliant setup if i do say so.

A Lawyer Mom's Musings said...

@ Former Law Student: "The professor reused a question from an exam he gave 15-20 years before. About a third of the class had written answers to every exam on file in the library, so they were able to quickly redo their analysis."

You've GOT to be kidding me. I'll bet, blindfolded, that the non-analists beat those OCD squirrel nuts to a pulp.

When will law students finally figure out there is no magic outline? There is no mystic study group. It's a do-it-yourself deal, all the way. Study and learn, study and learn. It's simply not a binge diet.

As for the careless prof? De-frock him. Or make him write a brief in support of the balloon boy parents . . . or spend 90 days with the balloon dad in jail . . . or get a root canal without nitrous. Or . . .

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