Grade Reform

Let’s close the loop on the latest changes to the Harvard Law School grading system. Last month, we reported on stealth grade reform at HLS. The school decided to attach numerical values to all of its grades — and place students numerical GPAs on their transcripts.

That was a big deal because Harvard made a big show of moving away from letter grading just last year. What’s the point of having no letter grades if your GPA can still be easily reduced to a four point scale?

Well, there is no point. And the latest changes confirm that the school’s experiment with no letter grades was just a useless and annoying show. The most recent changes will remove the GPA calculation from the students’ transcripts — but most employers should still be able to figure it out, provided they understand basic math…

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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….

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It’s nearly August. But at Harvard Law School, administrators are still trying to sort out what happened with Professor Bruce Hay’s spring Evidence course.

Not that grades matter all that much at HLS. The most important part of an HLS student’s transcript is the part at the top that says “Harvard Law School.” Heck, the school recently reformed its grading procedures, making the actual grades even less important.

But appearances must be maintained. It’s important that students feel their “super, gold-star, yay pass” grades are well-earned and fairly distributed.

Apparently students felt that Professor Hay did not adequately communicate how they would be graded. And now the administration has to step in…

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Loyola Law School (Los Angeles) hoped to quietly jump on the grade-inflation bandwagon in order to help make its students more competitive in the legal marketplace. The school bumped letter grades up a notch, so that a C- became a C, a B became a B+, and an A+ became an A+you’reasuperamazinggunnerrockstar.

But the quiet jump has resulted in a lot of noise. After we wrote about the school’s retroactive grade inflation, the Los Angeles Times and later the New York Times picked up on it.

And last night, Loyola had its big moment on the Colbert Report:

The upside is that Loyola-L.A. just broke through to a whole new audience of potential applicants. The downside is that we can hear the deflation of the hopes of all the Loyola law school grads who planned to wow employers with their amazing GPAs.

We reached out to Loyola about being mocked by one of America’s most influential people. A response from Dean Victor Gold, after the jump.

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We’ve done a lot of reports on schools that have instituted grade reform to make it easier on their students. But at DePaul College of Law, the administration decided to strictly enforce its curve as a way of combating wanton grade inflation.

Apparently not all of the professors were on the same page. Professor Howard Rubin taught Legal Profession this past spring and graded the class the way he always has. But his grades were curve-busting, and the administration asked him to lower those grades to match the school’s curve.

Professor Rubin refused to do this — and, well, now we’ve got emails…

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Tough curve ahead.

By this point, you know the drill with grade reform:

A) Law school experiences embarrassing employment outcomes.
B) Administration refuses to admit legal education is ridiculously overpriced given the soft job market.
C) Students demand immediate administrative action to help students find work.
D) Administration has precisely zero ideas on how to help students get jobs.
E) Administration blames its own “tough grading curve” that allegedly “disadvantages” its students.
F) Administration enacts “grade reform.”
G) Students feel momentarily appeased.
H) Employers ask for class ranking and go back to putting 90% of the transcripts they receive from the school in question into the shredder.

Next year, Tulane Law School will make grading easier. Getting a good job with a Tulane Law degree will remain just as difficult as ever…

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We reported in November that Loyola Law School of Los Angeles was thinking about artificially raising grades. In response to the terrible economy, the school has acted on the proposal. Here’s the opening line of the message from Loyola Law Dean Victor Gold:

Last week the faculty approved a proposal to modify the grading system. The change will boost by one step the letter grades assigned at each level of our mandatory curve. For example, what previously was a B- would be a B, what previously was a B would be a B+, and so forth. All other academic standards based on grades, such as the probation and disqualification thresholds, are also adjusted upwards by the same magnitude. For reasons that will be explained below, these changes are retroactive to include all grades that have been earned under the current grading system since it was adopted. This means that all grades already earned by current students will be changed. It also means that all grades going forward will be governed by the new curve. The effect of making the change retroactive will be to increase the GPA of all students by .333. The change will not alter relative class rank since the GPA of all students will be moved up by the same amount.

Loyola students are having difficulty getting jobs. In response, did the administration consider dropping tuition? Nope. Instead, they just gave everybody an extra third of a grade — retroactively, no less. That’s not just inflation; that’s a rewriting of history.

Really, are employers out there going to fall for this? Loyola hopes so….

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Here’s a little rule I just made up: People who do poorly in legal writing at New York Law School should not file pro se complaints against their school. It’s a good rule for people who don’t want to embarrass themselves.

I think I’ll call my brand-new maxim the “Timothy Keefe Rule.” The kid deserves something after getting smacked around by a New York appellate court. Here’s the set up, from the First Department opinion in Keefe v. New York Law School:

Plaintiff, a transfer student at defendant law school, commenced this action alleging, inter alia, that defendant breached an implied contract of good faith and fair dealing with him as a result of a grade he received in his Legal Writing II course. Claiming that he was unfairly disadvantaged because he did not take Legal Writing I at the law school, plaintiff seeks to require the law school to change its grading system from letter grades to pass/fail.

Keefe’s suit was dismissed at the Supreme Court level, and the dismissal was affirmed by the Appellate Division. I sure do hope he tries one more time at the Court of Appeals, because this is the kind of terrible argument I can’t get enough of …

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Harvard Law School seal logo.jpgYesterday, we reported that Harvard Law School was making a change to its grading curve before finals. We told you that HLS lifted the requirement to have a certain percentage of the class received a “low pass” in the law school’s new High Pass/Pass/Low Pass/Fail grading system.
After our report went live, Harvard Law School’s Vice Dean for Academic Programming, Andrew Kaufman, sent around an email to all students. According to Dean Kaufman, mandatory low passes were never a part of the HLS grading plan:

We have recently become aware of all sorts of rumors floating around about “changes” in our so-called grading curve, in particular the percentage of Low Passes. In fact, we have never had and do not now have a mandatory curve. All we have had for the last twenty years is a recommended curve. We did not recently change that curve. All we have done is to make clear to faculty that under the new grading system and in keeping with the recommended nature of the curve, they have discretion regarding the exact percentage of grades to be given in each category.
Andrew Kaufman
Vice Dean for Academic Programming

Fair point. Thanks for clearing that up.
But HLS dropped letter grading over a year ago. Are you telling me that the Harvard Law School faculty wasn’t entirely clear on how to grade students, for a year? During the worst legal job market in recent memory?
Some HLS students we talked to aren’t very happy with that.

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Given the state of the legal economy, I don’t have a problem with grade inflation at top law schools. The job market is terrible enough as it is. If an extra (inflated and totally BS) third of a grade helps a student get a job right now, I think that is fine. Whatever, sometimes you have to “juke the stats,” and I understand that.

But it’s not cool when schools institute grade inflation secretly and hope nobody will notice. It’s not cool when schools try to pass off grade inflation as something other than grade inflation. Law schools have to do what they have to do, but there is no reason to pretend that everybody is stupid.

At Harvard Law School and at Georgetown University Law Center, the administrations have decided that their students need things to be a little easier. But neither law school seems willing to admit that the economy played a role in their sudden embrace of grade reform….

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