Dean Dizon Demystifies the Grading Curve

By Shane Dizon, Assistant Dean of Academic Achievementshane_dizon

It is with mixed emotions that I write this Commentary article, knowing it is one of the last (if not the last) opportunity I will get to address all of you while still playing the role of Dean Dizon. For those of you who do not know, I will be moving on to Brooklyn Law School to join its faculty as the Director of its Academic Success Program. It was a difficult decision for my family and me to reach, and I will dearly miss working with you, the faculty, and the staff of this great learning community.

But there is, at present, no time for tears. Only for “sweat equity,” as they call it in the business world – earning and owning a piece of the enterprise – in this case, your success as a law student and your solid foundational preparation for the bar exam.

Yet rather than bombard you with platitudes of how you should be doing every practice exam in sight and be prepared to put in the long hours to earn every point, I’m writing this article at your editors’ request to explain the grading curve in a bit more detail (for more information, you can also see Cal Western’s Academic Policies in full).

Point One – The Grading Curve Is Per Course, Not Per 1L Section, and Not Per Entire 1L Population.

Academic Policy 6.02(C) states, in pertinent part, the required ranges of grades for each course. Your professors in Contracts II, Property II, Civ Pro II, Torts I, Legal Skills II must each independently apply the curve and provide the required range of scores in his or her own class. They cannot, should not, and do not talk to each other to ensure an “overall” curve to be applied to a section. Note also that the Legal Skills II curve is a bit “kinder” at its bottom distribution. (See Academic Policy 6.02(C)(V).)

Because the curve is separate by course, it is theoretically possible for no one to be dismissed in a 1L section. Again, there is an emphasis on theoretical. The most elementary example is if a second course’s grade list by student is exactly the reverse mirror image of a first course’s – the A students in course 1 now get the lower grades (C- and below) in course 2; the C- and below students in course 1 now get the top grades in course 2. Of course, that rarely happens, but it is, again, theoretically and technically possible. For the reality of the situation, see Point Five, infra.

So, anyways, back to the number of grades a professor can give of a certain kind. To find out how many actual grades can be given in each range, just do some simple math. Let’s say, for ease of calculation, that a section of Contracts II has 100 students. Accordingly, the grading curve for Contracts II dictates the range of scores as follows:

Grade Allowable Range #/Allowed Grades
90-95 (A and A+) 5-10% Minimum: 100 x .05 = 5

Maximum: 100 x. 10 = 10

Allowed: 5 to 10

85-89 (A- and B+) 5-15% Minimum: 100 x .05 = 5

Maximum: 100 x. 15 = 15

Allowed: 5 to 15

80-84 (B) 10-20% Minimum: 100 x .10 = 10

Maximum: 100 x .20 = 20

Allowed: 10 to 20

74-79 (B-, C+, and C) 30-60% Minimum: 100 x .30 = 30

Maximum: 100 x .60 = 60

Allowed: 30 to 60

69-73 (C-) 15-20% Minimum: 100 x .15 = 15

Maximum: 100 x .20 = 20

Allowed: 15 to 20 

50-68 (D+, D, D-, and F) 5-10% Minimum: 100 x .05 = 5

Maximum: 100 x. 10 = 10

Allowed: 5 to 10

Point Two – Ignore the Letter Grades and the 4.33 System: The 50-95 Scale Is the One That Matters

You will note that every grading curve listed in the Academic Policies uses the long-standing 50-95 scale.  See Academic Policy 6.02(A). That has not changed. If you are unclear what your grade is on the 50-95 scale, then take the (usually) three-digit number next to your letter grade on your transcript and divide it by the number of units the course is worth (for you 1Ls, that is dividing by 3).

Do not use letter grades; as you can see in the second table of Academic Policy 6.02(A), not every letter grade is the same. For example, the letter grade of C only corresponds to one 50-95 grade: that of 74. By contrast, the letter grade of B- corresponds to one of four possible 59-95 grades: 77, 78, 79, or 80. Yes, this drives me as a former SAT math tutor nuts, because the 50-95 and letter grade scales are not proportional. You can mistakenly think you need “a certain letter grade” to advance to the upper division or to retain your scholarship, but that is not accurate – you need a certain average on the 50-95 scale to do so.

And don’t use the 4.33 scale; as you can see Academic Policy 6.02(D), the 4.33 GPA scale is also not proportional to the 50-95 scale. For example, 2.00-2.11 (.12 of a GPA range) on the 4.33 scale corresponds to 74-74.99 (1 whole point) on the 50-95 scale. But 2.12-2.41 (.3 of a GPA range) on the 4.33 scale correspondence to 75-76.99 (2 whole points) on the 50-95 scale. This happens a few other places along the grade conversion table too. That is also something that drives the SAT math tutor in me positively nuts.

So why are you given a letter grade and a 4.33-scale GPA at all? My best guess is that the outside world does not understand the 50-95 system (says the employer: “You AmJur’d a class but only got a 95 – why not a 100?”) but does understand letter grades and a 4.x scale. That’s the most straightforward explanation I can think of.

Point Three – A Professor Must Request a Variance to Deviate from the Curve

If a professor wants to give more or less scores in a certain grade range, that professor must request a variance from the Vice Dean. The standard for granting the variance is pretty much an “exceptional circumstances” one. Variances are very, very uncommon, but they have been granted on occasion, usually when a professor believes his/her class has done a solid enough job such that no student warrants a grade in the lowest required band of the curve.

Point Four – Yes, The School Thought About the Impact of the ASAP (Part-Time) Program

As you may know, students who opted into the 1L ASAP Part-Time Program dropped two classes in the spring – Legal Skills II and Torts I. (Spring starts who opt into ASAP in the summer will only drop one class – Torts I.) To ensure that those students remaining in those two classes were not unfairly “moved down” the curve without the ASAP students in it, the bottom band of the grading curve (50-68) is not required to be filled by Legal Skills 2 or Torts 1 professors.

Again, a student can still “earn” (to put it ironically!) a grade in that bottom band if his/her performance really, truly, is that far below the passing standard. And it has happened. On that note, can your professors really, consistently, know an AmJur or B or C or sub-C exam book when they see one? After having taught at four different law schools, the answer is, resoundingly, yes.

Point Five – To Find Out Overall Attrition and Scholarship Information, Look at the Standard 509 Required Disclosures on the CWSL Web Page

American Bar Association Standard 509 requires all law schools to have several disclosures clearly accessible on the front pages of their websites. (Ours is a permanent link in the bottom right corner of every single CWSL web page.) Specifically, if you want information on how much attrition there is in an entire class (again, not in one section, but in the entire 1L, 2L, or 3L year), you need to go there. If you want information on how many scholarships are reduced or eliminated each year due to students receiving low grades, you need to go there.

I hope these five points are helpful in terms of explain the grade curve and its impact in a bit simpler language. My TL;DR would simply be, “Try reading the Academic Policies; who knows, you might be pursuing a career where you will need to know what the rules are.” But seriously, it’s time that you get back to studying, so you don’t actually have to worry about the grade curve at all, because you’ll be too busy looking awesome with a neatly structured IRAC final exam essay answer and perfectly timed and strategized performance on your multiple choice.

Contact Dean Dizon with academic support/exam prep questions at

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