The Trouble With Grades

A Law School Report

(The following are excerpts from a report by a group of first-year law students on grades and their effects on education at the Law School.)

For many years the Law School has had confidence in the precision with which grades take the measure of the man. "If one fellow got 76 and another 76.5," said Felix Frankfurter, "there's no use saying, 'The 76 man is better.' Maybe so, but how do you know he's better?" For Frankfurter, who entered the school in 1902, Harvard Law was and remained "the most democratic institution I know anything about" largely because everyone's work was measured by the standard f grades. Regardless of background, a man could prove his worth by doing well on first-year exams. Grades left no room for racial, religious, or class bias. All students could compete on an equal footing and be judged impartially. The system, said Frankfurter, "creates an atmosphere and habits of objectivity and disinterestedness, respect for professional excellence, and a zest for being very good at this business which is the law."

But a system which served well is Frankfurter's time has grown increasingly inadequate. Last year's study of the grading system indicated that the problem concerned all at the Law School and had to be solved by students and faculty working together. Many of us feel that problems discussed in that study are still present. For the past month more than 150 first-year students have been actively discussing the atmosphere created by the present grading system, and examining proposals for change. We have found that our views of the Law School coincide to a remarkable degree.

Our perspective differs from Frankfurter's. He viewed the Law School as a meritocracy in which graded examinations and rank in class served to obliterate subjective discrimination. Grades hindered the temptation of school organizations and employers to select members according to irrelevant biases. While we recognize that the present system has helped to establish a tradition of evaluating students on the basis of merit and has fostered Harvard's reputation for academic excellence, we are convinced that in the context of our day, with students who differ greatly in backgrounds and abilities from those of Frankfurter's day, the utility of the old system has reached the point of diminishing return.

We believe that the system draws critical distinctions among students prematurely, at the expense of developing talents over a three-year period. We believe that the system is a detrimental force in the lives of many first-year students; that it creates unnecessary tension, anxiety, and fear of failure in the minds of many of our classmates; that it encourages us to compete, to score points on each other, rather than to communicate and work in cooperation with one another. We believe that the system offers to some the incentive to develop the skill of examinationship, while it offers no incentive to others. We believe that individual talents and interests go unrecognized and are often inhibited by the monolithic structure of the first year and its over-emphasis on final grades. Finally, we believe that the present grading system offers students too little evaluation too late.


Under the current system, year-end examinations assert the definitive judgment of our capacities while providing us no evaluative feedback during the year. Grades create a status hierarchy with few winners, but many losers. The current procedures are unjustifiable at a time when the school is attracting so many highly-motivated, well-qualified students. As the ones who stand to lose by this system, we want to see it changed before we experience the unhappy effects of it; but we also recognize that the issues we raise deeply affect an educational process that is the central concern of a faculty devoting their lives to teaching law.

When Felix Frankfurter was deliberating about joining the Law School faculty he called Harvard the "most hopeful center, the rightful leader" in producing men who would be the leaders of tomorrow. But he went on to say that, "As a matter of fact, it has been creatively stagnant for almost a generation. Since Langdell and Ames did their epoch-making work in the revolution of the method of teaching, nothing has been done except the perfection of technique."

What follows is a report on our deliberations over the current grading system and the effects it has on our legal education, as well as a flexible and open-minded proposal for change. Though we differ with the late Mr. Justice Frankfurter on what the best educational system would be, we take hope in his faith that the student body is an essential source of energy for developing a better community at Harvard Law School.

Why Grades?

1) To Evaluate Students?

The current grading system limits evaluation of a student's ability to the results of four-hour examinations at the conclusion of each course. Examinations appraise an important skill--the ability to respond to legal problems with speed, accuracy, and endurance, given limited resources and under extreme pressure. They expose to some degree the quantity and quality of a student's preparation, as well as his competence in mastering the first-year curriculum. They also measure such things as how well he feels that day, how well attuned he is to a given professor's expectations, and how well his nerves can adjust to the artificially created tensions for which exam period is famous. Thus the student who has prepared assiduously for these few hours may find his career and self-image seriously damaged because he could not get to sleep the night before the contracts exam. Too much is at stake in having only one four-hour exam per course.

Final exams ignore the evaluation of the student's ability to research a problem and analyze it under non-exam conditions, his ability to exercise sound judgment in considering problems of social policy, his ability to communicate and reason orally, and his ability to work with other people. All of these are skills central to a lawyer's career. Moreover, this pressure-cooker form of evaluation is very unlike that which occurs after graduation. That evaluation--whether in a law firm, government, or teaching--takes place over time and is based on cumulative efforts.

An evaluation system should point out students' weaknesses in time for them to be overcome. The present system never gives the student any feedback about how well or poorly he is doing until it is too late to respond. Apart from the practice exam, there are no points along the way where the student is challenged by quizzes, written work, or group projects. At no point, even after his grades are handed to him, does he receive any constructive guidance about how well he is absorbing the law and what his relative strengths and weaknessse are. A student whose basic problem is that he does not understand how to study law generally is not likely to find any assistance under the present system. In fact, under this system he may not even realize he has a problem until he receives his grades. It is disheartening for a student to go through a year of hard work only to be told by a letter grade that he approached the law incorrectly.

A study at the University of Wisconsin Law School, in which the general problems encountered by first-year students were explored, discovered that this lack of feedback was a major cause of student frustration. "This initial fear of failure was intensified as the semester progressed because the first year student was unable to get feedback. . . . This intensified fear of failure interfered with the student's ability to succeed. It caused the student to rely on false feedback, encouraged ineffective study, inhibited informal education available by contacts with student colleagues and professors, and most importantly, interfered with actual academic success."

2) To Provide 'Incentive'?