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Cracks in the Bell Curve: Top Schools Tweaking Grading Systems

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  • Cracks in the Bell Curve: Top Schools Tweaking Grading Systems

    Law school grades. The very thought of them churns our insides. We still have nightmares (literally) about the big bulletin board at Michigan upon which the grades were posted back in the mid-1990s. Lawyers, you know the dream. In some, we're running to the board, but keep getting lost in the hallway. In others, we get there, only to find our parents (our parents!?) at the board, tearfully consoling each other over their son's miserable performance.

    In any event, a recent story in the National Law Journal makes us wonder if we weren't born a decade too early. Several top schools are retooling their grading policies, moving away from letter grades or, short of that, allowing professors to give out more grades at the top end of the curve.
    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.

    According to the NLJ, the schools said they made the changes to create fairer evaluation systems and to better convey their students' accomplishments to employers.

    Harvard, for instance, has announced that starting this fall, it will switch from the letter-grade system to an honors/pass/low pass/fail system. (Yale has used a pass/fail system for many years.) Stanford switched to a similar system last fall. Stanford Law Dean Larry Kramer said that it seems to be working well. "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.

    NYU took a different path. In the fall, it changed its system to allow A-pluses to be awarded and to permit more A's and A-minuses.
    "[Before] it wasn't so much that students didn't earn A's or A-minuses. It's just that there were few available," said Rochelle C. Dreyfuss, a professor at the school who chaired the committee that recommended the changes. 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 Blog Recommended Reading: Another benefit we didn't have back in the 1990s, was the benefit of the wisdom conveyed in this little note, from Orin Kerr. Still reads like very good to us. A snippet:
    All grades do is measure how well you did relative to your classmates on a few 3-hour exams taken at a particular place at a particular time. They're only a snapshot of how well you displayed your ability at one particular time in the judgment of one particular professor, rather than a Scarlet Letter (whether A, B, or worse) sewn on for life.

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