Should We Erase the “Gender Gap” in Grades?

Has Stanford Law stopped discriminating? I realize this is a loaded question, but it is inescapably prompted by research, published in the Journal of Legal Studies, that suggests “ways to close the gender gap in law schools.”

Stanford law professors Mark Kelman and Daniel Ho examined 15,689 grades assigned by 91 instructors to 1,897 Stanford law students from 2001 to 2012. From 2001-2008 they found a clear gender gap. It was small, 0.05 GPA points, but, they claim, significant: “an increase in GPA from 3.6 to 3.65 is associated with a 7 percent increase in the probability of securing a federal appellate clerkship, they noted.” The gender gap disappeared in 2008, when the school adopted an “honors and pass” grading system, and after 2009, when a very small mandatory class involving more student interaction and participation was introduced, “the gender gap actually reversed.”

As Professor Kelman stated to Stanford News, his and Professor Ho’s research “refutes a common assumption that performance is predetermined by ‘fixed’ student traits” and tends to confirm his “more optimistic view … that much of the inequality we observe in the world is mutable and that the structures that we sometimes take for granted may work to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others.”

Whether or not the eradication or even reversal of a 0.05 GPA gender gap is substantial enough to support such a far-reaching conclusion is debatable, but in any event the study as reported leaves two significant issues unaddressed. First, is there any correlation between the old and new Stanford grading systems and post-Stanford performance? It would be most helpful, for example, to learn whether any gap in bar exam passage rates and scores was affected.

In the absence of such data I am reminded again of remarks by the principal of my daughter’s middle school on parents’ night some years ago. “I am so pleased to announce,” he beamed (I’m paraphrasing from memory), “that the new grading system we introduced at the beginning of last year has worked wonders! Our students’ grades improved dramatically throughout the year.” After a slight pause, however, he added that “we still have a good deal of work to do. The scores on standardized tests, for example, have not shown a similar improvement.”

The second issue concerns how to regard grading changes that inure to “the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others.” More precisely, is reversing — or even simply eradicating — a “gender gap” in grades always and necessarily a Good Thing? There has been an avalanche of reports advocating methods of making STEM fields more “welcoming” for women–some of it discussed here–that often examines classroom environments and teaching styles.  As I’ve noted, these studies assume that women have  “different social or cultural experiences” and so require a different type of classroom and a different style of teaching.

Would not those very changes tend to discourage and drive away men, who according to these studies are different and would not like these changes? In other words, if current educational “structures” discriminate against women, would not substituting others as a result of which “the gender gap actually reversed” amount to discriminating against men?

Just asking.

John S. Rosenberg

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

One thought on “Should We Erase the “Gender Gap” in Grades?”

  1. Completely agreed. I would just add that if an 0.05 point GPA increase leads to a 7% increase in rate of hiring by federal appellate judges, there is something seriously wrong with federal appellate judges. Perhaps it’s better at the state level; perhaps it’s worse.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *