September 28, 2008
Law School Grading
Posted by Gordon Smith

The legal blogosphere is all atwitter with the news that Harvard is following Stanford and Yale into the realm of pass-fail grading. The main objections to this system are twofold: pass-fail grades provide less information than more textured grading systems, and pass-fail grades encourage slacking among students. (On slacking, see Brian Leiter's experience teaching at Yale.) Meanwhile, the perceived advantages of the system are varied, though most seem at least a little bit dishonorable:

  • For the faculty at these law schools, "fewer grading distinctions means much less time grading." (Orin)
  • The pass-fail system is "very popular with students, in part because it enables those at the bottom of the class to post respectable transcripts that make it difficult to tell exactly where they stand relative to their classmates." (Ilya)
  • For the law schools, pass-fail grading makes them more competitive with their peer schools. (Brian)

I have twice been involved in debates about changing grading systems, and after the second round, I decided never to be drawn into the fray again. The arguments go around and around on the same issues with no sense of closure.

But those were debates about the relative merits of the traditional 4.0-scale versus other ranking methods. The "new" systems -- which in practice result in two grade levels (Honors and Pass) -- seem fundamentally different from other grading systems in the level of competition engendered by the grading system. While ambitious Yale law students might be driven to compete for Honors designations, the competitive environment of Yale Law School seems quite muted in comparison with, say, Chicago.

Folks like Orin Kerr or Appalled Chicago Lawyer see the benefits of competition, but competition for grades has costs, too. As noted last fall, BYU was ranked by Princeton Review as "Most competitive law school," and in the past year I have been able to observe some of the effects of that competition. We have great students in terms of LSATs and GPAs, but the focus on grades here is intense. (And to my friends from Vandy, I take back what I wrote about that school being "hands down the most competitive law school I have seen up close.") In speaking with students, I am told that the source of the competition is attributable in large part to the bimodal distribution of law firm salaries. The fact is, if you want elite clerkships or elite law firm placements coming out of BYU, you need to do well.

Now, if you believe that scores on law school exams reflect real learning, this sort of competition seems like a good thing. On the other hand, if you believe (as I do) that an intense focus on grades sometimes comes at the expense of real learning, this sort of competition is a cause for concern. As it happens, I was reading up on law school reforms when the Harvard story broke, and I had just read the following passage from Bonita London et al., Psychological Theories Of Educational Engagement: A Multi-Method Approach To Studying Individual Engagement And Institutional Change, 60 Vand. L. Rev. 455, 457 (2007):

For many students, the institutionally sanctioned grading and ranking procedures create a distinct hierarchy among the students that translates into later potential for success. Thus, the perceived cost of falling short of one of these coveted top spots is high, e.g., less competitive internships and job prospects. A culture of competition for limited resources can make the goal of collaboration or of engaging the course material in a deep and reflective process less likely. This competitive environment may result in students not only disengaging from a learning-focused approach to the material in favor of an approach that maximizes performance, but also may lead to strained relationships among students as they compete against each other for the same limited resources.

In weighing the various grading systems, law schools must consider multiple constituencies, but I suspect that all of those constituencies would value a law school with a culture of collaboration and engagement. While I doubt that any grading system can create such a culture, does one grading system stand above the others in not undermining attempts to develop that culture? Or does the essential scarcity of elite clerkships and elite law firm placements necessarily undermine attempts to encourage collaboration and engagement?

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