Refined Evaluation

HLS gets an “honors pass” for its new grading system

Well, prospective lawyers, you can kiss that “A” in Civil Procedure goodbye. Last week, Harvard Law School (HLS) announced that it would eliminate letter grades by the fall of 2009, adopting an “honors pass/pass/low pass/fail” grading system like those already in place at Stanford and Yale. The change no doubt comes as a relief for incoming 1Ls daunted by the prospect of competition with some of the brightest—and most cutthroat—students in the nation. But beyond merely assuaging freshman fears, the switch to pass/fail promotes the pedagogy and overall mission of the Law School as well.

In any academic setting, letter grades have the power to create perverse incentives. Students are discouraged from academic exploration for fear of sullying their pristine GPAs and are pressured to tailor their comments and papers to satisfy the whims of their evaluators more so than their own intellectual leanings. In addition, at least in the humanities, a strict grading system forces professors to create hard and often arbitrary distinctions between works that cannot easily be compared.

In most academic environments, these concerns are outweighed by the need to provide some sort of clear metric of performance to potential employers or other educational institutions. If Harvard College, for example, were to abandon letter grading, it might be difficult for firms or graduate schools to know which students were qualified and which were not. Grades also provide a clear motivation to attend class, do the readings, and engage with the material.

Yet at Harvard Law School and its peer institutions, the letter grading system provides far less in the way of usefulness. Any student capable of graduating from HLS has already demonstrated a high level of proficiency and drive simply by generating the grades and scores necessary to gain admission and completing the coursework while there. Law students are admitted as adults, not naïve adolescents, and their past records speak volumes to their capabilities. The answer to the question of which graduates possess basic competence is simple: they all do. In this rarefied context, the need for quantitative grades on a 4.0 GPA scale is simply lacking.

As a professional school, HLS exists in large part to prepare students for careers in law. A pass/fail grading system is more in line with this mission, as it qualitatively evaluates students on the basis of whether they have obtained sufficient mastery of a subject to be prepared to engage with it in the real world, not against some abstract standard of perfection.

Surely, the elimination of grades will enhance, rather than diminish, the quality of education offered at HLS. In between college experiences spent cramming for LSATs and potential futures working 80-hour weeks in a desperate attempt to make partner, it’s nice that Harvard Law students will enjoy a brief oasis in which intellectual curiosity is the primary reason for academic effort.