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Several leading law schools are retooling their grading policies, with some institutions making major revisions and others merely tweaking their systems. Harvard Law School and Stanford Law School, for example, are switching from the traditional grade and letter policies to pass/fail systems. At the same time, New York University School of Law now allows professors to give more A’s. And some institutions, such as Columbia Law School, are reviewing their grading systems to see whether they need updating. The schools initiating changes said that they did so to create fairer evaluation systems and to better convey their students’ accomplishments to employers. “I think each school has to look at their culture, their own pedagogy, their own curriculum and make a decision for themselves what works best,” said Michael A. Fitts, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Since 1995, the school has given traditional letter grades and sees no need to change that, Fitts said. Harvard Law School is among the schools making some changes. The institution announced that starting this fall, it will switch from the letter-grade system to an honors/pass/low pass/fail system. The school said that no one was available to comment, but according to an e-mail from the dean published in September in the Harvard Crimson, the faculty believes that the new policy will “promote pedagogical excellence and innovation and further strengthen the intellectual community.” Yale Law School has used a pass/fail system for decades. Another top school, Stanford Law School, switched to a similar system in the fall. The school abandoned its letter grading system in favor of one that gives an honors, pass, restricted credit or a failing grade for all semesters and quarters. The new system also provides norms for the proportion of students who may be awarded with honors in their course work. Communicating to employers Stanford Law Dean Larry Kramer said that it’s too early to draw conclusions about the new system but that it seems to be working well. The old numerical system suggested to employers that a big difference existed between a student earning a 3.42 vs. a 3.48, for example, even though the difference could be negligible, he said. “One, [the new system] conveys more accurate information to employers without diminishing student incentive to work; two, it reduces needless grading anxiety; and three, it encourages faculty to experiment more with evaluative things they do in their classes,” Kramer said. For example, the system allows faculty to use a combination of short-term papers with exams for evaluation, Kramer said. The new grading policy will be evaluated after three years, he said. Columbia Law School has a letter-grade system that is supplemented by a credit/fail standard in some classes. In addition, the first class that students take — a three-week introduction to law — is graded as credit or fail, Dean David M. Schizer said in an e-mail response to questions about the system. The system allows students to acclimate upon arrival without the pressure of letter grades and permits more detailed feedback, he said. The school has formed a committee of faculty members that is consulting with the students regarding whether the grading policy should be refined. “Our preliminary sense is that there is broad support within our student body for our current system over the systems recently adopted at Harvard and Stanford, but our process of deliberation on the issue is not yet complete, and we will continue to solicit student and faculty input,” Schizer said. Law school deans said changes sometimes are necessary to ensure that their students’ accomplishments are accurately reflected to employers. New York University School of Law said that in the fall it changed its system to allow A-pluses to be awarded and to permit more A’s and A-minuses. “We now are midway between schools that give many, many A’s and the schools that don’t,” said Rochelle C. Dreyfuss, a professor at the school who chaired the committee that recommended the changes. “[Before] it wasn’t so much that students didn’t earn A’s or A-minuses. It’s just that there were few available. If they made one small mistake on the exam they would miss out on A’s or A-minuses. It failed to make differentiation among very good students and the best students.” Law school deans said that such changes are not uncommon and that schools may adjust their grading curves from time to time to make sure they are comparable to those at other schools. But some were sticking with their current systems. For example, the University of Chicago Law School and Northwestern University School of Law said that they have no plans to change their letter grade-based systems. The University of California, Berkeley School of Law uses high honors, honors and pass designations and has no intention of changing that policy, said Stephen D. Sugarman, a professor at Berkeley. The system allows judges and other potential employers to see who the best students are, he said. “If you give everyone A’s and there aren’t any A-pluses, or if you don’t give honors and high honors, you just wouldn’t have a way to easily distinguish the best 25 or the best 10% of your students,” Sugarman said. “So I think you need in some ways to help the judges and help yourself decide who to promote as the best students.” Like any system, it has its pros and cons, Sugarman said. For example, Berkeley uses a strict curve that dictates how many students can be awarded with honors. In the first year, exactly 40% of students can win honors grades. “Some years I may want to give 12 and some years eight, and I can’t do that,” he said. Fitts, of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said that whatever system law schools choose, it is important that they are useful to potential employers. “When you have a less refined grading system, people who are employing your graduates are going to make distinctions, but they’ll make them on their own grounds,” he said.

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