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Harvard Law Moving to Yale-Like Honors / Pass Grading System:

According to the e-mail that I had forwarded to me (and whose authenticity I have no reason to question), Harvard would technically have four grades -- Honors, Pass, Low Pass, and Fail. My guess, though, is that Low Pass and Fail would be extremely rare, and 98%+ of all grades would be Honors or Pass, as they are at Yale. The shift then is basically from at least five commonly used grades (A, A-, B+, B, and B-, unless I'm mistaken) to two.

Stanford apparently adopted a similar proposal a few months ago.

FriedmanFan:
Wow, I guess you can say goodbye to the Sears Prizes and the Fay Diploma.
9.26.2008 4:21pm
ca (mail):
this is quite similar to the grading system that has been in place at berkeley for many years.
9.26.2008 4:33pm
Smokey:
Harvard has been coasting on its formerly excellent reputation for quite a while now, and its alumni should be up in arms about this. What's next, online tests?

What ever happened to the concept of merit? Is equality of results the only goal??
9.26.2008 4:35pm
Aron Zuckerman (mail):
According to the professors all honors including summa and magna will remain the same as the proportions will be the same under the new system.
9.26.2008 4:42pm
John P. Lawyer (mail):
Having worked with numerous harvard and yale law grads while clerking and in the law firm setting, two things stick out: 1) their grades don't matter because judges/firms all too often hire on the basis of name/recommendations; and 2) judges/firms should look more closely at class standing and not be so quick to hire from harvard/yale. Sadly, judges/firms pass on much better candidates from "lesser schools" because they are hung up on the idea that Harvard/Yale produces a superior product. Unfortunately, I doubt that judges or law firms (or other entities that typically hire entry level candidates) will push back and demand that Harvard retain its present grading system. Were I a judge, I would simply no longer hire from schools that do not retain a traditional grading system.
9.26.2008 4:47pm
Observer:
John P. Lawyer: Most employers or judges are certainly willing to hire an average HLS grad and these employers will not change their hiring decisions based on the change in grading. But I can imagine that this will hurt for SCOTUS or top appellate clerkships; those judges had their pick of the top 2% of HLS students in the past, and now they will have no way of assessing who the top students are. Yale can get away with this because of its size, but it is doubtful that HLS can.
9.26.2008 5:13pm
Jimmy W (www):
Observer,
Just because individual classes will be "Pass" and "Higher Pass", it does not mean that the grade distribution will solely be "4.0" vs "3.0" for graduation GPA.

Most people will have a combination of "Pass" and "High Pass" in their transcript, thus allowing you to calculate class standing for the majority inside the center of mass. It is only at the extreme top and bottom that you can't differentiate. But perhaps that's the purpose. Afterall, we don't want to hurt the self-esteem of those on the bottom :)
9.26.2008 5:22pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
Will they be giving out participation ribbons too?
9.26.2008 5:22pm
U.Va. Grad:
What's next, online tests?

While I wonder about the wisdom of this move, I also wonder what the problem with online testing would be. (After all, testing's already something-like-online, since everything is submitted electronically these days.)
9.26.2008 5:24pm
MarkField (mail):

Will they be giving out participation ribbons too?


I think we call those "diplomas".
9.26.2008 5:33pm
Mac (mail):
U.Va. Grad:

What's next, online tests?

While I wonder about the wisdom of this move, I also wonder what the problem with online testing would be.



Hiring or begging smarter folks than yourself to take the online test, perhaps? There is no verification of the actual test taker, I presume.
9.26.2008 5:33pm
dirc:
Next stop: two grades. Pass and Fail.

Last stop: one grade. Pass. No one will ever fail, they just won't complete the course.
9.26.2008 5:49pm
blabla:
"Most people will have a combination of "Pass" and "High Pass" in their transcript, thus allowing you to calculate class standing for the majority inside the center of mass. It is only at the extreme top and bottom that you can't differentiate. But perhaps that's the purpose. Afterall, we don't want to hurt the self-esteem of those on the bottom :)"

Not quite. The problem is that there will be a ton of people who will be able to get "H's" in basically every class. Let's say 25% of the people in each class get an H. At Columbia, 9% of the people in each class got A's, and about 17% got A-'s. That means that an H would really mean that a student got either an A or an A-. At Columbia, there was a small number of students who got A's (not A-'s) in basically every class. Those students got the best clerkships. But there was a somewhat larger number of people who got A's or A-'s in basically every class. Those people presumably did OK in the clerkship department, but not as well as the other group. Under Harvard's plan, it will be impossible to tell the two groups apart.
9.26.2008 5:53pm
trad and anon (mail):
Smart move by Harvard. The grading system is a significant factor in Yale's matriculation rate. Yale's reputation is the most important factor, but not the only one, and Stanford's adoption of a similar system means both of Harvard's major competitors would have the grading system students choosing schools prefer. Harvard would have lost a noticeable number of good students to Stanford without this move.

Volokh is right that there are theoretically "low pass" and "fail" grades at Yale, but they don't really exist in practice. From Brian Leiter, when he was a visiting prof there:
Me: "I assume you will back me up in failing the student for plagiarism." Associate Dean: "Well, umm, this is a delicate situation."
9.26.2008 5:56pm
Dr. T (mail) (www):
Many medical schools went from letter grades to honors/pass/fail. Some medical schools then went to pass/fail (with Yale leading the way). Proponents of pass/fail claim that this makes medical school more collegial and less competitive. They are wrong. The pass/fail grading system greatly increases competition in the third year of medical school. The grades and brief written evaluations given at the end of each clinical rotation (medicine, surgery, pediatrics, etc.) are the only way residency programs can separate good students from mediocre students, and the medical students who seek competitive residencies do everything they can to look better than their classmates.

I teach at a medical school and would prefer to switch to a percent grading system (with weighting for the credit hours of each course). Identifying excellent students from barely passing students would be easy.
9.26.2008 7:55pm
Smokey:
trade & anon,

that was a great Leitner quote.

But this can't be right:
Harvard would have lost a noticeable number of good students to Stanford without this move.
Harvard already takes plenty of mediocre students via Affirmative Action and for similar reasons. There are lots of applicants with very high SAT scores, and 4.25 GPA's who are bypassed. Other lucky schools, including stanford, get those straight A+ students.
9.26.2008 9:33pm
Michael F. Martin (mail) (www):
Given the demand for students from these schools, I think shifting to pass/no-pass was a terrific competitive move, and one that will improve culture within the school -- less competition, more collaboration, more creativity.

The next tier of schools, especially Chicago, should benefit so long as they maintain their grading systems, as some employers (like Prof. Volokh) will still prefer to see grades.
9.27.2008 1:38pm