Grade Reform, Law Schools, Martha Minow

Harvard Law School to Stealth Grade Reform

Last year, Harvard Law School abandoned letter grading and went to a High Pass/Pass/Low Pass/Fail system. The news was greeted with much fanfare, as it seemed like HLS was trying to become a kinder, gentler academic environment — one that wouldn’t be dominated by cutthroat competition to beat the curve. You know, something like a mega-Yale.

But it appears that soft grading just didn’t appeal to the lords of HLS. This semester, a more traditional grading scale is back. The letter grades are still gone, but now the grading distinctions at Harvard Law will conform to the tyranny of numbers. The Harvard Law Record reports that students will receive a point value for each grading distinction — five points for each Dean’s Scholar Prize credit, four for each Honors credit, three for per Pass credit, two for a Low Pass credit, and zero for a Failing grade — and those numerical values will be transmitted to employers.

And unlike last year’s grade reform, which was wildly publicized and discussed both inside and outside HLS, students only learned of this new grading system if they bothered to read the student handbook….

HLS students have been buzzing about this change since they got back to campus. When Above the Law opened up our Google Voice text message line (646-820-TIPS or 646-820-8477 if you want to send us a text), many students took the opportunity tell us that HLS was engaged in “stealth” grade reform.

We’ve been looking for a document, a press release, or some kind of official announcement that Harvard was changing grades (again). But we kept coming up empty. That’s because this change is only memorialized in the student handbook. Dean Martha Minow’s office referred us to this report in the Record:

“Students were informed the same way that they were informed about everything,’” Dean Martha Minow said. The grade changes were passed on the condition that that may be revised by the faculty over the academic year with updates included in the Handbook, she explained. “We’ve concluded that the only way to be sure that we can be clear about what are the governing rules of the school is to say they’re in the Handbook, and you’re responsible for knowing what’s in the Handbook.”

Right, the handbook. I just did an informal poll of myself and my friends who were immediately available on Gchat. In 26 years of combined experience at either the college or the law school, nobody copped to ever once reading the student handbook, cover to cover. In fact, there were only two people who recalled opening the student handbook, and none who recalled re-opening the handbook after their first year on campus. A Congressman burying a $50,000 pork project in a billion-dollar omnibus spending bill is acting more transparently than HLS is when it buries a fundamental change in the way students are graded in the student handbook.

And speaking of lack of transparency, last year’s experiment with publicizing the grading curve is also dead:

As for the grade distribution, Howell Jackson, while acting as interim dean, decided to publicize a curve for the first time in school history. Last year, the recommended grade distribution for large classes was designed to have 37 percent of the class receive Honors, 55 percent receive Passes, and eight percent receive Low Passes or Failing grades.

“When I became dean, we went back to the longstanding tradition of no published curve. We found it more successful,” said Minow, as the general response from faculty, alumni, and students was that the published curve actually focused attention on grades.

But don’t misunderstand Minow; she’s perfectly happy with employers who have “focused attention on grades.” She just wants to make it difficult for the students to have the kind of information about themselves that employers will have at the ready:

Students won’t be told what their GPAs are, said Minow. She said students should use their time to pursue unique opportunities at the Law School instead of worrying about grades and trying to calculate their GPAs.

Still, the new GPA calculation method appears on the reverse side of official transcripts.

Okay, take a step back for a second. HLS has reverted to a grading system that is secretive and competitive, but it’s blinded the students to the overall distribution of their own GPAs — GPAs that the students wouldn’t even have known existed if not for a report in the student paper.

Why the hell would they do this? It’s a retreat from last year’s changes. It’s being done in an illogical and clandestine manner. One must assume that employers put Minow in a room and threatened to waterbaord her unless she adopted a system that made it easier for them to separate out students from HLS’s huge classes. But Minow claims employers had nothing to do with this:

There was “zero” truth, Minow said, to speculation that employers had demanded the new calculation method. Instead, a working team, comprised of the faculty, administrators and staff that developed the Pass-Fail system, made the new tweaks to the system.

“Tweaks”? This is not a “tweak.” Calling this a tweak is like calling the Wasserstein expansion a new annex, instead of recognizing it as a terraforming Colossus.

But, if you’ve been around Harvard for any length of time, you know that this is how they roll when they’re kicking it old school. Meetings involving God-knows-who. No student input. And edicts based on the way Harvard thinks the world should work, as opposed to the practical reality that awaits 10 feet beyond the ivory tower.

This is how HLS wants it. Nobody can ask them why. And while some students finished reading this post and are concerned with the new realities at the school, others have already been to Langdell to rip out pages in casebooks and plant viruses on laptops. Grade reform has been reformed; watch your back.

New Harvard Law Grading Policies Emerge as Students Head to Interviews [Harvard Law Record]

Earlier: Harvard Law School Grade Reform Update

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