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.

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.
Harvard and Stanford's Adoption of the Yale Law School Grading System:

Orin Kerr and I have plenty of disagreements. But as a Yale Law School grad, I agree with his criticisms of the YLS grading system, and am somewhat disappointed that other schools are copying it. For those who may not know, the YLS grading system replaces traditional letter grades with a constricted three grade scale (Honors, Pass, and Low Pass). In practice, most Yale grades are either H's or P's; Low Passes are rare. Technically, students can also fail a class. But this penalty is only imposed on an extremely unlucky and inept few.

The Yale 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. It also enables students at all levels to slack off in some classes without damaging their records much. As Orin notes, the system greatly reduces the informational value of grades by ensuring that the vast majority of students get mostly P's, with perhaps occasional H's. In practice, the YLS "P" seems to encompass all the grades ranging from a B+ or low A- to a C or C- on the traditional grading scale. Thus, "C" students' transcripts look very similar to those of B students. Employers allow YLS to get away with this because even low-ranking Yale grads are usually considered good candidates for jobs at major firms. Harvard and Stanford grads probably also have enough prestige to get away with it for the same reason.

Still, it's unfortunate that Harvard and Stanford transcripts will now provide less useful information than before, thereby reducing the efficiency of employer hiring. And though I may not be as much of an old-fashioned meritocrat as Orin, I too don't especially like a grading system that reduces the cost of slacking off.

The Psychology of Grading: So here's a puzzle about the psychology of grading. Harvard and Stanford Law schools have recently announced moving from a letter grade system with pluses and minuses to a High/Pass/Low-Pass/Fail system. My sense is that most students like the change: Students perceive that it takes pressure off them.

  But imagine a slight change. Imagine that instead of adopting the High/Pass/Low-Pass/Fail system, the schools kept the letter system and simply dropped pluses and minuses and the "D" grade. In other words, the possible grades became just A, B, C, and F.

  My sense is that students would object strongly to such a system. They would object that it was too arbitrary and unfair, because a student who earned a very high B or a very high A would get no credit for it: They would just get the flat grade that didn't reflect their achievement. Indeed, I suspect some students would say that removing pluses and minuses would increase the pressure on students by giving students a single bar to hit rather than more of a sliding scale.

  Why is this a puzzle? Well, the two systems are the same in a functional sense. High is just a new name for an A, Pass is the new name for a B, and Low Pass is the new name for a C. But my sense is that students don't see it that way. My best sense of why is that the experience of having received letter grades for almost 20 years of schooling before law school gives those letters tremendous meaning that new words like "high" and "pass" don't have. A switch to a new grading system makes the new grades feel different, even if the switch is mostly just a label.