Stanford Law School plans to drop letter grades as early as this fall, joining Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.
The goals are to shift students away from the focus on grades and prevent course selections that have started to include calculation of instructors’ grading habits, according to Stanford Law School Dean Larry Kramer.
“It didn’t come out of the blue. We consulted with employers and students and it has been well-received,” he said.
Students will get one of four grades: honors, pass, restricted credit or no credit, instead of the traditional A+ to F grades.
Berkeley abandoned traditional grades 35 years ago and Yale University also switched years ago.
The quota question
Berkeley does impose a strict quota on professors to keep an even system among all the instructors, according to Professor Steve Sugarman.
“It is a big problem if you don’t have quotas,” he said. “Without it there is uneven grading among instructors and students who get harder graders complain,” he said.
Berkeley, which has four grade categories — high honors, honors, pass and fail — limits high honors to 10% in each course, among first-year students, and 10% for regular honors grade. Instructors can give no more and no less than 10% of the top two grades, Sugarman said.
Kramer said Stanford plans to use a quota system of “a kind of enforced norm for ranges,” but “a set of details has to be worked out.” Once that is done, it will eliminate the class-shopping problem, he said.
Kramer also pointed out that elimination of letter grades is common in business and medical schools, but law schools are the most conservative and slow to change.
Daniel Bernstein, heading into his third year at Stanford Law School and a member of the Law Review staff, said, “most students have reacted positively” to the grade reforms. “Most students wanted it all along and lobbied for it,” he said.
Bernstein, who is from Washington, said he doesn’t know what is in the wind for Stanford’s top-grade quota, but he thinks caps should be looser than the 10% allowed at Berkeley.
“You want to give students a bigger chance to hear honors and the chance to reward student initiative and distinguish the better students,” he said. “A 25% to 35% cap would be good . . . or give professors a band within which to work.”
“If you’re going to eliminate grades, you still need a way to distinguish performance,” Bernstein said.