Law School Grade Reform – Not So Fast

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Many of Columbia’s peer schools have recently undertaken reforms in their grading systems.   Harvard and Stanford have moved in the direction of Yale’s system – three passing grades (1: Honors/High Pass, 2: Pass and 3: Restricted Credit/Low Pass) and then 4: No Credit/Fail.   Since hardly anyone fails in our law schools, this means that these schools have adopted a policy of three grades, unmodified by pluses or minuses.   NYU, by contrast, adjusted its curve upward capping the number of A (A+, A, A-) grades in a class at 31% and targeting only 6% for B- and below.   This is a higher curve than ours at Columbia (our first year grading curve caps A range grades at 24% and targets 10% for B- and below).   I won’t rehearse here the justifications for these reforms.   You can read more about them here and here and here.   Wikipedia has an overview.

Despite our peer schools’ recent efforts at grading reform, we have resisted moving in a similar direction.   We haven’t reached a final faculty decision on the issue, but we’ve devoted considerable thought to it and are to a large measure disinclined to follow the trend.   Why?

Well, there are a number of reasons why these reforms might be both well- and ill-advised.   But my hesitation stems from a concern for our students of color and women students.   Even with our current grading system (four passing letter grades with pluses and minuses) prospective employers rely heavily upon the formal and informal recommendations of faculty – especially faculty they know personally.   Whether applying for clerkships or jobs in private or public interest, judges and employers use grades as the initial filter in sifting through stacks of resumes, but when deciding which of the best students to interview, they typically turn to the recommendations of faculty.   This informal, largely old-boy network continues to disproportionately favor students who are white and male.   I’m not prepared to accuse my colleagues of intentional discrimination, indeed, it is often the case based on my own experience that the white male students are most comfortable extending themselves both inside and outside the classroom in ways that make them stand out.   Class background is no small factor here as well.     I get to know them and their thinking better than other students who are more reticent to seek me out, toot their own horns, offer to do research for me, etc.   I regard it as part of my job as a professor to create opportunities for a larger range of students to shine, but also to teach them all that part of success in this business is feeling comfortable putting yourself out there.

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– Katherine Franke

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3 Responses to Law School Grade Reform – Not So Fast

  1. draconismoi says:

    At Northeastern University School of Law we haven’t had letter grades for years. Each student gets a transcript with pass/fail grades for employers wanting a one page transcript. But our grades come in the form of written evaluations for each course. With the big 1L courses our evals were based almost entirely on our finals, but the next two years, when we actually interacted with professors, we’d get an actual description of our full contributions (and failings) to the course.

    They are discussing implementing a HH, H, P, LP, F system (which is ridiculous, if they are going to set a 5 letter grading scale, they might as well use the one recognized in the US), but for now, we still get pass/fails along with a page description. I’m not sure how useful those evals are to students (most of us don’t read them) or employers (who get 20 pages when they ask for an official transcript), but it is definitely less arbitrary then letter grades, and when we fail, we know exactly why.

  2. David S. Cohen says:

    When I started at Columbia in 1994, the school was evaluating its grading system. Before I was there, it had fail, pass, satisfactory, good, and excellent. Or something like that. If I remember correctly, the students were given the option of keeping that system, going to a system of only letter grades (no +s or -s), or adopting the entire letter grade system with +s and -s. The students, being the competitive Columbia students they were, opted for the latter.

  3. Katherine Franke says:

    draconismoi: funny you should mention Northeastern – that’s where I went to law school and the grading system to which I referred in my post. Evaluations must serve two purposes, oft time incompatibly: i) let the student have frank feed-back they can use ii) offer outsiders such as future employers a sense of the student’s performance in the class. Most employers I know (including myself when I ran a non-profit after law school) did not want to spend the time reading student evaluations.

    And David Cohen’s comments about Columbia’s efforts to reform its grading system in the ’90s shows us that grading reform movements come in waves. We’re in one now.


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