Grade Reform, Law Schools

HLS Grade Reform: Splitting the Baby Was The Only Call

Harvard Law School seal logo.jpgWhen Harvard law school announced that they would be dropping their letter-grading system in favor of a pass/fail system, we noted that the school had not yet decided how to apply the new system to current law students:

But the crucial question is whether this new system will be applied retroactively to the classes of 2009 and 2010.

Well, today Harvard decided. After discussing the pros and cons of applying the new system to current 2Ls, Dean Elena Kagan announced:

In light of these strong arguments on both sides of the question, the School will adopt something of a middle course, suggested by a number of second-year students. (I should note that second-year students offered several other creative approaches to the issue, and we seriously considered all of them.) In 2008-09, members of this class will continue to receive traditional grades. In 2009-10, members of the class will receive grades under the new grading system, with the result that the entire school in that year will operate on this new system. Graduating honors will continue much as now, based on performance from all three years. This approach will allow students in the position I have described above to show the kind of improvement in their academic records most easily recognized by judges and other employers (because based on the same metric). At the same time, it will enable the entire Law School, including members of the class of 2010, to participate in, and gain the educational benefits of, the new system beginning next year. I understand that some may view this solution as akin to cutting the baby in half, and it will disappoint some students on both sides. But it seems to me to respond appropriately to the most powerful concerns on either side and thus to represent a judicious, even if by no means perfect, resolution of the issue.

This is a big difference from what Stanford instituted this September. Remember, SLS decided to retroactively apply their modified pass/fail system to the 1L grades of current 2Ls.

Harvard’s balancing act is designed to give 2Ls the best chance at getting jobs and clerkships in this tough market. But transcripts of 2010 law school graduates will still look … a bit weird. At least 2010 SLS transcripts will all be on the same system, somehow.

Which do you prefer?

Read Kagan’s full memo, including her discussion about what happens to 3Ls and LLMs, after the jump.


HARVARD LAW SCHOOL — MEMO — NEW GRADING SYSTEM

Dear HLS students:

In the last couple of weeks, I have received thoughtful input from many of you about the Law School’s transition to a new grading system. I am very grateful for your views and suggestions. I am writing to let you know how the School will resolve these questions.

Current first-year students will receive our new grades (Honors-Pass-Low Pass-Fail) in all of their courses this year, including spring semester electives. The faculty has agreed that this new grading system will have significant educational benefits. It makes sense for first-year students, who have not received any grades under our old system, to share fully in these benefits. Input I have received in the last couple of weeks indicates that an overwhelming majority of the first-year class agrees.

The application of our new grading system to second-year students presents a more difficult question. Input from members of this class indicates that a majority favors immediate application of the new system, essentially for the same reasons that the faculty approved the change. A very substantial minority, however, raised serious issues about this approach. The most weighty concern, to my mind, relates to the ability of members of this class to show improvement in grades over time, so as to increase their chances of receiving a clerkship, public service job, or other late-occurring opportunity. Numerous students wrote me that although they would have favored our new grading system if applied from the beginning, they thought that applying it midstream would further highlight their first-year grades and deprive them of a chance to show that they could do better than they had done under the traditional system. Some of these students also noted that they had made choices of courses or extra-curricular activities in the expectation that they would have this opportunity.

In light of these strong arguments on both sides of the question, the School will adopt something of a middle course, suggested by a number of second-year students. (I should note that second-year students offered several other creative approaches to the issue, and we seriously considered all of them.) In 2008-09, members of this class will continue to receive traditional grades. In 2009-10, members of the class will receive grades under the new grading system, with the result that the entire school in that year will operate on this new system. Graduating honors will continue much as now, based on performance from all three years. This approach will allow students in the position I have described above to show the kind of improvement in their academic records most easily recognized by judges and other employers (because based on the same metric). At the same time, it will enable the entire Law School, including members of the class of 2010, to participate in, and gain the educational benefits of, the new system beginning next year. I understand that some may view this solution as akin to cutting the baby in half, and it will disappoint some students on both sides. But it seems to me to respond appropriately to the most powerful concerns on either side and thus to represent a judicious, even if by no means perfect, resolution of the issue.

Third-year students will complete law school under the traditional grading system. Thus, all upper-class JD students this year will operate under the traditional system, whereas next year all will operate under the new system.

LLM students will be graded in the same way as the JD students in each of their classes. Thus, LLM students in first-year classes (e.g., contracts) will receive grades for those classes under the new system. LLM students in upper-level classes will receive traditional grades. The same is true for any SJD students taking classes this year. This approach will maintain the important and longstanding principle that JD and LLM students be evaluated according to identical standards. For LLM or SJD students taking both 1L classes and upper-level classes, and thus receiving two kinds of grades, an explanatory note will be added to their official transcripts.

Once again, I appreciate your input regarding these transitional matters. In the town hall meeting I held on the subject, in all of your emails and petitions, and in my conversations with representatives of student government, I have been struck by your appreciation of the complexity of these issues and your generosity toward classmates who have opposing views. I think these changes will make the school better, and I look forward to a successful implementation over the next two years.

Best,

Elena Kagan

Earlier: Not To Be Left Behind, Harvard Changes Grading System Too

Stanford Adopts ‘Retroactive’ Honors Policy: Students Complain In Real Time

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