Law School Grade Reform – Not So Fast

Posted on January 31st, 2009 by Katherine Franke

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.

To the extent that we deemphasize grades in the ways that Stanford, Harvard and Yale have done, or lump more students into the top of the class as has done NYU, future employers will rely even more on the recommendations of faculty.  Many of us at Columbia have already been lobbied by judges and firm hiring committees not to follow the trend. (Interestingly enough, our students at Columbia may be favored by our retention of the old-fashioned grading system – it takes a lot less work to read a grade than it does to read a letter of recommendation and follow up with a phone call to get the recommender’s adjectival key (outstanding =A, excellent = B+, very good = B etc). Why the heck bother?.  I went to a law school that had no grades, but rather gave students written evaluations.  This system had many merits, but is impracticable at a school the size of Columbia – and employers HATED it.

Surely there are plenty of problems with grades – they are anything but scientific, we all agonize when we have to draw a line between the A- and the B+ grades.  The Columbia faculty is considering alternatives to the Yale, Stanford, Harvard model – perhaps making the first semester of the first year pass/fail, increasing the number of courses overall that students may take pass/fail, a lottery, or no grades at all (well, those last two we didn’t discuss, but I like them).

I don’t doubt that our colleagues at our peer schools thought about these concerns carefully and decided on balance that the reforms outweighed the costs.  I’m not there yet – there are so many ways in which law school structurally favors certain types of students’ learning styles, self-confidence, ways of being in the world, sense of belonging or entitlement to certain opportunities – I’m not ready to heap on another significant and largely inchoate measure of success that will inevitably, I’m afraid, reward the students who are already operating with the benefit of substantial tailwinds.

– Katherine Franke


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