Harvard Law School Adopts Pass-Fail Grading System

Harvard Law School will be moving to a pass-fail grading system in the fall of 2009, joining peer institutions such as Yale and Stanford, Dean Elena Kagan announced in an e-mail to students this afternoon.

The move, which in lieu of the traditional system of letter grades will allow four levels of assessment—honors pass, pass, low pass, and fail—is intended, according to Kagan's e-mail, to "promote pedagogical excellence and innovation and further strengthen the intellectual community."

According to the e-mail, there will be more discussion about whether any current students will be allowed to switch over to the pass-fail system. Kagan said she would hold a "town hall" meeting in early October to consider the issue further.

Harvard's grading system will now resemble that of rivals Stanford, whose faculty voted in May to discontinue letter grades, and Yale, which has had a pass-fail system since the 1960s. Proponents of broader grade categories typically point to decreased competitiveness and enhanced freedom to explore intellectually without concern for academic penalty in their justifications of the system.

"Our grading system and curriculum allow a level of flexibility and freedom that is unparalleled," reads the testimony of one Yale student on the school's Web site. "Yale allows you to make your education truly yours without worrying about grade competition."

Full text of Kagan's e-mail:

To all students:

I am writing to let you know that the faculty decided yesterday to move to a grading system with fewer classifications than we have now.  The new classifications, much as at Yale and Stanford, will be Honors-Pass-Low Pass-Fail.  The faculty believes that this decision will promote pedagogical excellence and innovation and further strengthen the intellectual community in which we all live.  The new system will apply to students entering HLS in fall 2009; yet to be determined is whether it also will apply to some or all classes of current students.

The faculty began consideration of this issue last year, and has consulted with groups of students, alumni, and other employers in the course of our discussions.  Before making a decision on whether to implement the system now, for all or some of our current students, I want to make sure that any interested student has a chance to express his or her views.  To provide this opportunity, I will hold a "town hall" meeting on Thursday, October 2 from 2:30 to 3:30 in Austin North.  I look forward to seeing you some of you there.

Best,

Elena Kagan