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Thoughts on the New Grading and Honors Policies at Harvard and Stanford:
As Eugene notes, the Harvard Law faculty voted to abolish its traditional grading system and move to a High/Pass/LowPass system. On a similar note, Stanford Law School, which recently enacted the same reform, decided to abolish Order of the Coif and "with distinction" diplomas and replace them with many course book awards, some retroactive.

  I assume the purpose of Harvard and Stanford making these decisions is to try to get some of the Yale halo effect. Yale is the #1 school among top law school applicants, top judges, and law school hiring committees. Yale's lack of traditional grading information works to its advantage. Applicants like it, of course: No gunner law student wants to be told he is pretty much average, which is what grades tend to tell people in most cases. And the lack of information about where Yale students fit in the class often works to their advantage in the job market, as it's harder to compare Yalies to students at other schools. Employers figure, "Well, I have no idea how smart this guy is, but then, he is at Yale...." Perhaps adopting Yale's unusual grading system will attract more top students to Harvard and Stanford, and it may have a psychological impact on judges hiring clerks and committees hiring assistant professors. Or maybe it will backfire. Time will tell.

  I can certainly see an advantage for the faculties at Harvard and Stanford. Fewer grading distinctions means much less time grading. Ranking a set of 100 exams into 7 or 8 different categories takes an incredible amount of time, as you need to make sure that every exam in each category isn't better than an exam in a higher category or worse than one below. But ranking is very easy if there are only three categories: Unless an exam jumps out as outstanding or terrible, it's a "pass" and you don't need to spend time on it.

  As a Harvard Law alumnus, on the other hand, I admit I'm a bit saddened by the switch. One of the things I respected most about Harvard Law as a student is that it was unapologetic about its reliance on grades. When you got your grades back, you knew pretty much exactly where you stood in a very competitive class. I suppose I think something is lost in giving students and their future employers less feedback. But then I'm pretty much a traditionalist about such things: I confess to believing in the mostly unfashionable notion of meritocracy, so I tend to think the more grades, the better.

  Finally, I can't help but think that Felix Frankfurter must be turning over in his grave. His beloved Harvard Law School abolishing letter grades? FF would have lost it over that one; I think he would have decided to only hire clerks from the University of Chicago.
George Weiss (mail) (www):
im annoyed that people arnt detecting the BS here

currently very few people get D's

so there are a b and c grades that are not being called high pass and low

unless thye announce in how they calculate GPA3- this is a distinction without a difference...as it was for Stanford.

real grade reform would require actual work (like grading a class based on more than 1 exam and thereby creating a more reliable ranking system for employers to use) so that is probably not going to happen.
9.26.2008 5:57pm
John (mail):
I remember when going pass/fail was a fad many years ago among liberal faculties all over the place. A lawprof of mine, Bernie Meltzer, wryly noted that these are the same people who get apoplectic at grocery stores wanting to put meat in packages that don't have transparent wrapping.
9.26.2008 6:10pm
KWC (mail):
The problem with thise type of system is that it basically means that once you get into Harvard (or current Stanford or Yale), no matter how much you suck at the law and legal thinking, you will be seen as a brilliant legal mind. Since LSAT scores and grades at oftentime grade-inflated undergraduate schools don't necessarily equal brilliant legal mind, you get a lot of people who get more credit than they deserve.

This is not to say that grading is a perfect system, but if I manage to get As in all my classes, from a variety of professors, across the board, it's probably a better indicator that I get the material.

Finally, the whole thing seems odd. If people reviewing grades (judges, jobs, etc.) will take anyone from Harvard when grades are, essentially, withheld from them, why do they now (in a world where grades are available), seem to care? It must be psychological, right?

That is, if I'll hire student No. 1 when I don't know his class rank (he could be the best or the worst), why won't I hire someone with a 2.5 from Harvard?

The whole thing is absurd. H, P, all that. Dumb.
9.26.2008 6:12pm
ObeliskToucher:
In a similar vein, I propose adjusting the Harvard Law faculty salary structure so that it has just three fixed tiers: Well-Paid/Paid/Underpaid...
9.26.2008 6:13pm
nnn (mail):
Of course, this is exactly the problem with undergrad grades at these schools. Science majors get shafted at grade time vs. those in easier majors at the very same schools. Ditto on hard-grading schools vs. grade inflated ones (Ask MIT kids if they'd rather have Harvard's curve). The big surprise is that most employers and law schools only make minimal adjustment for undergrad major. Maybe an A- in Physics beats an A in General BS Studies at the Ivies when applying to law school, but I bet a B- from MIT or Berkeley EE gets killed in law and med school apps when compared to an A- grad from an easy major at HYP.
9.26.2008 6:16pm
DancingBears:
Or maybe he'd have hired all from University of Michigan -- note that according to Clerkship Addict and Above The Law U of M is tied for second place this year in federal judicial clerkship hiring.
9.26.2008 6:18pm
Sigh:
Orin writes, "I assume the purpose of Harvard and Stanford making these decisions is to try to get some of the Yale halo effect."

That's a pretty uncharitable assumption to hold, especially when it contradicts their stated reasons for adopting the policies. Why don't you address the reasons the schools offered?
9.26.2008 6:25pm
OrinKerr:
Sigh,

What reasons did they offer?
9.26.2008 6:26pm
KeithK (mail):

No gunner law student wants to be told he is pretty much average, which is what grades tend to tell people in most cases.


Some people need to be told that they are just average. It might help them get some perspective. It's not like "average Harvard law student" is a horrible category to be placed in.

(Well, aside form the nasty Harvard thing, but then I'm a Cornell hockey fan.)
9.26.2008 6:27pm
OrinKerr:
Oh, and Sigh, I should add that the only statement I know of from Harvard is this from Elena Kagan: "The faculty believes that this decision will promote pedagogical excellence and innovation and further strengthen the intellectual community in which we all live."

To be honest, I don't really know what this means, so it's hard to evaluate. (In particular, it does not say why the faculty believes this, or what the thinking was beyond that it would make the law school better.) Of course, if you have other statements about the specific benefits the schools offered, I hope you will share them.
9.26.2008 6:30pm
Calderon:
Do the advantages in your second paragraph really happen, or do employers and thus students simply substitute other acts to stand out from the crowd when grades are suppressed? That is, instead of having people study for exams, won't you get people working more for professors, participating in judicial externships, volunteering, and generally becoming involved with other resume padding activities? Maybe these acts are preferrable to intensely studying the law, maybe not, but in the long it doesn't seem like there will be any less pressure on students.
9.26.2008 6:30pm
Humphrey Bogus (mail):
This same phenomenon exists in business schools. Harvard, Stanford and Wharton didn't have letter grades either, but have recently moved back to a letter-grade system, I understand. When I was at Wharton, in each class grades were recorded as Distinction (top 10%), High Pass (next 10-15%), Pass (60-70%), and Qualified Credit (bottom 10%)--my recollection of the percentages are approximate. Harvard had a similar scale.

At the time, these same schools had a "grade non-disclosure" policy, a version of "don't ask-don't tell" for employers and students. Honors for the top 20% and top 10% of the class were disclosed, but they weren't available until long after employers had made their interview selections.

The policy at Wharton (and I believe Harvard) was recently overturned, as it was found to discourage b-school students (easily the laziest professional school students on their best day) from taking academic pursuits seriously.
9.26.2008 6:36pm
dearieme:
"The faculty believes that this decision will promote pedagogical excellence and innovation and further strengthen the intellectual community in which we all live."
Neither do I.
9.26.2008 6:38pm
Houston Lawyer:
When I was at Texas, they used a number grading system with a strict bell curve. 85 and up was an A, with no more than 7% of the class getting those.

This system had been in use for years and was cruel but fair. Every Texas grad knew how it worked and you knew with a high level of certainty where you ranked with your peers. Sometime later, when the market for lawyers started to suck, they changed the grading system to inflate the grades and went to an A, A- scheme allegedly in order to held the Texas grads compete better against students at other schools who received higher grades.

It is clearly not true that those at the bottom of the class understand the material as well as or put in the same studying effort as those in the top part of the class. So the effort at these schools seems to be primarily to hide the ball from employers. The fact that it reduces the professors' work load doesn't really commend it either.
9.26.2008 6:40pm
Sigh:
Orin, in addition to the statement you cite, there is Dean Kramer's statement that, "the reform will have significant pedagogical benefits, including that it encourages greater flexibility and innovation in the classroom and in designing metrics for evaluating student work."

Obviously neither statement is a full defense of their reasons for the change. But its easy to infer from those statements the general principles behind the change. They likely believe the changed grading system leads to more collaboration (like students in medical schools, many of which have a similar system), a greater diversity of measuring metrics (e.g. written work through the course of the term that previously would have required too much time to assign letter grades to), and students with less focus on the quest for grades.

I suspect that last point is the one with which you most disagree. But there is a legitimate argument about whether meritocracy--whatever its other advantages to employers might be--is in tension with good pedagogy. I disagree with a lot of those reasons too, but I think they can be reasonably inferred from the Dean's statements and what we know about the general debate over grading systems.

We should discuss those reasons, not reasons we invent which impugn the intentions of these deans.
9.26.2008 6:40pm
Carolina:
Based on my experience resume reading and comparing at a large DC firm and in clerkships, firms and judges are not stupid. They know what it takes (i.e., how many "High Passes") to be in the top 5% or 10% at Yale, Berkeley and other schools with screwy systems.

The "stars" at these schools still stand out through High Passes. The biggest effect is it basically prevents the school from having to label any student below average. Harvard wants employers to see its students as members of one of two groups 1) Brilliant, top HLS students and 2) Very smart average HLS students.

The obscuring effect is on the bottom third or bottom fourth of the class -- it's going to be harder to pick these people out of the pack of HLS resumes.

Harvard, I am sure, justifies this internally by reassuring themselves even the bottom 5% of their class is super-duper wonderful, and would be superstars at State U law school, so let's help them as much as we can. I'm just not sure this is correct. Can't blame HLS for trying though.
9.26.2008 6:44pm
TerrencePhilip:
The problem with thise type of system is that it basically means that once you get into Harvard (or current Stanford or Yale), no matter how much you suck at the law and legal thinking, you will be seen as a brilliant legal mind. Since LSAT scores and grades at oftentime grade-inflated undergraduate schools don't necessarily equal brilliant legal mind, you get a lot of people who get more credit than they deserve.

Well, if you really "suck at the law and legal thinking" you will fail, even under this system. LSAT scores are a good predictor of bar passage rates, which if you combine with a record of solid work in law school strongly suggests the student has the makings of a good lawyer, if they apply themselves and like the work (mileage may vary). The students who truly do the best work will still have plenty of opportunities to distinguish themselves.

This program is not going to mask actual incompetence. As Orin suggests, it will mainly benefit those in the middle of the pack and probably aims to help students compete for clerkships with other top-ranked schools that also eschew the traditional grades.
9.26.2008 6:48pm
OrinKerr:
Sigh,

If those are the statements you had in mind, your 5:25 criticism that I was being "uncharitable" by not recognizing the arguments the law schools have made strikes me as quite weak. I realize that you believe there are reasons that you think justify the change, but as far as I can tell the law schools have not made them explicitly.

Of course, it may be that those arguments that you find persuasive are indeed strong ones. I look forward to the debate on that question, and I hope Harvard and Stanford will make the case for it. It's true that based on my personal experience at HLS with ungraded courses such as "Introduction to Lawyering" and Trial Advoacy, I'm starting out skeptical. But of course I am quite open to being convinced, as my experience may have been idiosyncratic or not particularly relevant..
9.26.2008 6:53pm
OrinKerr:
One more point, Sigh: I think I may have been influenced in my assessment of motives by some past statements from Harvard and Stanford about their grading systems. For example, when Stanford Law School changed its curve from a 3.3 median to a 3.5 median just a few years ago -- a curve higher than any other law school in the country -- the law school magazine explained that the purpose of the change was to help Stanford grads get better clerkships. I suppose I was assuming a similar motive here, but perhaps I was wrong in making that assumption. I look forward to learning more about these decisions.
9.26.2008 6:55pm
Sigh:
What I thought was uncharitable was the assumption itself. It suggested that these educators real goal was not educating their students, but improving their prestige.

I agree that if we are going to debate their reasons, we need to make assumptions. But we can try to do so by extrapolating on what they said, instead of our guesses as to their true motives. I do not think it is a great leap to go from what they said to the well-known "pro" arguments for the systems they adopted.

But you've been very fair in responding to my criticism. I appreciate it.
9.26.2008 7:00pm
trad and anon (mail):
Orin—I think this is more about competing for students. Entering students prefer not having to worry so much about grades, and with Stanford having adopted a similar system Harvard was going to lose good students to Stanford, meaning it would fall in the U.S. News rankings, which would of course be the end of the world.
9.26.2008 7:02pm
Zorkmid:
There's probably no law professor more responsible for these changes than UCLA's Richard Sander. Changes like these will obscure any differences in performance by people admitted under different standards.
9.26.2008 7:09pm
Visitor Again:
Finally, I can't help but think that Felix Frankfurter must be turning over in his grave. His beloved Harvard Law School abolishing letter grades? FF would have lost it over that one; I think he would have decided to only hire clerks from the University of Chicago.

Letter grades? Frankfurter would have rolled over in his grave at letter grades, too. As late as the late Sixties, when I finished at HLS, we received numbered grades in all classes. A mark of 75 or higher was considered the equivalent of an A; someone with a 75 average would be on law review. A mark in the high 60s was considered the equivalent of a C. So a difference in grading of six points could put you either in the stratosphere or among the great masses.
9.26.2008 7:37pm
zippypinhead:
Well, it's distressing to see this sort of shift, at least to the extent it's being done to chase Yale's #1 rating. But hey, the ratings chase could be worse. We alumni of a certain modest midwestern law school get to read today that they're setting up a special program to admit high-GPA undergrads from the same institution, but ONLY IF they do NOT take the LSAT -- apparently to boost the USN&WR mean GPA admittee ranking without unduly risking their already-good LSAT median scores. Sigh...

(link above to ABA Journal Online for this week - it works in my browser, but for all I know there's one of them sneaky cookiethingies that lets me in as a subscriber. If so, I apologize to those without this cookiethingiedoohickeyspybot infestation).
9.26.2008 7:44pm
OrinKerr:
Visitor Again,

I was thinking of FF's discussion in Reminisces of the difference between an "A man," a "B man," and a "C man."
9.26.2008 7:57pm
Dr. T (mail) (www):
Ranking a set of 100 exams into 7 or 8 different categories takes an incredible amount of time, as you need to make sure that every exam in each category isn't better than an exam in a higher category or worse than one below.
I do not understand the dilemma. I have graded plenty of essays, and I have no difficulty assigning grades. Each question is graded against my own standards: an 'A' essay would have addressed these 6 points, a 'B' essay would have addressed at least 4 of the 6 points, etc. I don't sort the essay answers by quality, determine breakpoints, and then assign grades. With my system, if no one meets my 'A' standard, then no As are given. With the other standard, a fixed percentage of students gets an A regardless of quality.
9.26.2008 8:07pm
Bill McGonigle (www):
How objective is the numeric grading? At Dartmouth undergrad, we knew in most humanities classes you had to parrot the professor's opinions to get good grades. I learned that after my Freshman English seminar where I got a C on the main paper for "excellent writing, well-reasoned, wrong" for showing that soap operas were degrading to women (the prof was a feminist soap opera fan, it turns out). What does 2.57 mean in that context? Not much.
9.26.2008 8:19pm
OrinKerr:
Dr. T,

I'm assuming that the grading scale accurately measures the showing of lawyerly ability and skill on the exam. The number of points addressed alone does not reflect this, in my experience, as it is easy to address everything in an incoherent way or just a few things expertly.
9.26.2008 8:44pm
Zipgar (mail):
Zorkmid has it exactly right.

Black and Hispanic students who clearly cannot compete intellectually are admitted to elite schools. Under the current system, such students have bad grades, because they are not as bright as their classmates. So by herding everybody into this great mass of those who "pass," schools like Harvard and Stanford can obscure the performance differential between NAMs and students admitted on merit.

Rigorous grading systems are just one more price of "diversity." The collapse of the banking system is obviously more important, but it's still a price.
9.26.2008 8:49pm
Bob from Ohio (mail):
Was "pedagogical" on the Harvard Word A Day desk calenders this week?
9.26.2008 9:08pm
Been There, Done That:
My college abolished letter grades in the '70s in favor of "High Honors, Honors, Pass, Fail." On transcripts, they won't provide a GPA.

Naturally, the faculty just treated these as new names for A, B, C and F.

Of course when I applied for law school 17 years later, I learned what I'd always suspected, which is that the Law School Admission Council treated the grades exactly like the faculty did and calculated a GPA for me accordingly.

Last I heard, my college had thrown in the towel, too.
9.26.2008 11:06pm
Dan Weber (www):
I'd like to see most schools do away with grades, and maybe even diplomas, too. When an institution wears the hats of both educator and evaluator, everything suffers.
9.26.2008 11:50pm
autolykos:

As a Harvard Law alumnus, on the other hand, I admit I'm a bit saddened by the switch. One of the things I respected most about Harvard Law as a student is that it was unapologetic about its reliance on grades. When you got your grades back, you knew pretty much exactly where you stood in a very competitive class. I suppose I think something is lost in giving students and their future employers less feedback. But then I'm pretty much a traditionalist about such things: I confess to believing in the mostly unfashionable notion of meritocracy, so I tend to think the more grades, the better.


I don't know about you Orin, but when I was at HLS, I didn't have the slightest freakin clue where I stood in a very competitive class. Not only did they not provide class ranks or even cut-offs particularly far into the class (I knew a B+ average was cum laude and that something few than a third of the class graduated cum laude), but they used that stupid grading system where an A was something like 11 points, an A- was 10 points, a B was 9 points, etc. So you could calculate a GPA if you wanted, but few enough people bothered to where you could compare GPAs even if you wanted. I still remember my undergrad GPA out to the thousandths of a decimal place (since it was on a 4 point scale), but I couldn't tell you what my HLS GPA was if you held a gun to my head.

Now that doesn't mean there isn't some value to the grades - graduating magna from HLS carries a certain cache in my mind that will be reduced the more they do away with grades - but for the other 70% of the class, there's not much of a difference.


Was "pedagogical" on the Harvard Word A Day desk calenders this week?


On the first day of class my 1L year, one of the teachers actually told his class something along the lines of "if you can't understand something I've said, it's not because I'm going too fast, it's just because of my pedagogical excellence." The students didn't know what to think (other than that he was a really, really big douche).
9.27.2008 12:06am
FantasiaWHT:
With my LSAT &undergrad, I could've gone to Harvard or Yale. I'm a returning student with a house and a family, however, and I decided instead to go to a low-second-tier regional law school so I didn't have to move. I would put my abilities and skills up against the people accepted to those schools but who have struggled and done poorly any day, but I'm not given that chance with systems like these.
9.27.2008 12:16am
josh:
"I assume the purpose of Harvard and Stanford making these decisions is to try to get some of the Yale halo effect. Yale is the #1 school among top law school applicants, top judges, and law school hiring committees."

Is that right? Isn't the Yalo halo effect more a result of class size?
9.27.2008 12:19am
Zed:
Professors already could choose to give out grades on a four-tiered scale. They could simply choose to give out only A's, B's, C's, and F's, so that nobody would get the + or - grades. Then pretend the A's are Honors, B's are Pass, etc. Since switching from an eight-tier grading system to a four-tier grading system apparently promotes "pedagogical excellence," why are not all the Harvard professors jumping over themselves giving out only four grades?
9.27.2008 1:10am
OrinKerr:
I don't know about you Orin, but when I was at HLS, I didn't have the slightest freakin clue where I stood in a very competitive class. Not only did they not provide class ranks or even cut-offs particularly far into the class (I knew a B+ average was cum laude and that something few than a third of the class graduated cum laude), but they used that stupid grading system where an A was something like 11 points, an A- was 10 points, a B was 9 points, etc. So you could calculate a GPA if you wanted, but few enough people bothered to where you could compare GPAs even if you wanted. I still remember my undergrad GPA out to the thousandths of a decimal place (since it was on a 4 point scale), but I couldn't tell you what my HLS GPA was if you held a gun to my head.


Interesting -- my experience was very different. We knew the average grades, we knew the cut offs for cum laude and magna, and we knew roughly what it took to grade on to the law review. Plus, the 11 point grading system was just a formality: you could easily convert it into a 4 point scale if you wanted, and I generally did so after every semester to see what my GPA was. (The only difference was that an A- was a 3.6666, not a 3.7, etc.) You never knew exactly where the curve was in each section, but usually you could get a rough idea.
9.27.2008 3:24pm
Larry Fafarman (mail) (www):
The original post says,
I assume the purpose of Harvard and Stanford making these decisions is to try to get some of the Yale halo effect.

Harvard and Stanford don't need a "halo effect" from anybody.

Yale is the #1 school among top law school applicants, top judges, and law school hiring committees.

????? How is that? On the current Supreme Court, there are five Harvard Law School grads (one justice attended Harvard LS but graduated from Columbia LS) and "only" two Yale LS grads. In the decade 1970-79, the Harvard Law Review was cited 4410 times in federal court opinions whereas the Yale Law Review was cited "only" 1800 times and the Columbia Law Review was cited "only" 1062 times.

BTW, IMO Volokh Conspiracy has too many posts on the same subject in too short a time, so it is hard for me to decide where to post my comments. IMO if the bloggers here have something to add within a short space of time, they should post their additions in the comments sections instead of posting a whole new article. This would also keep down the total number of articles and thus help prevent the articles from too quickly moving down the home page and off the home page.
9.29.2008 10:49am