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An adjustment in grading policy at Harvard Law School has caught students off guard and incited concern that employers will use the new metrics to differentiate among job candidates.
The changes, which will allow the Law School to calculate Latin Honors more precisely, were put in place over the summer and included in the 2010-2011 Handbook of Academic Policies, but were never publicly announced.
The biggest change is that each grade will now correspond to a point value—four points are awarded for a High Pass, three points for Pass, two points for Low Pass, and zero points for a failing grade.
When the Pass-Fail system was adopted in 2008, it was made clear “that there would be tweaks along the way,” said Assistant Dean for Career Services Mark A. Weber.
The changes this year are simply “fine tuning a process which everyone knew about,” he added.
The point average will not be printed on students’ transcripts, but the explanation of the point value system will be included on the back of the transcript.
Another change is that professors will now have increased discretion over the number of Dean’s Scholar Prizes they award.
Previously, a maximum of two Dean’s Scholar Prizes—which recognize execellent academic work—could be given per class.
A Dean’s Scholar Prize will also be worth five points in the new scale and will be factored into Latin Honors calculations.
Law School Student Government President Jennifer D. Dein expressed concern that the five points assigned to the Dean’s Scholar Prize, combined with the more liberal allotment of the prizes would effectively make the prize the equivalent of an “A.”
“Now it feels like a High Pass is a B and a Pass is a C,” Dein said.
Weber said he believes Dean’s Scholar Prizes should be regarded as an A+ for especially extraordinary work and these awards will not devalue other grades.
Some students expressed concern that assigning a high numerical value to Dean’s Scholar Prizes retroactively would reward effort in a certain way that was not intended at the time it was awarded.
According to the Law School, attaching numerical equivalents to the grades on the transcript is not unprecedented.
Previously, an 8-point scale appeared on the back of the transcript under the old letter-grade system.
“With the information provided on the transcripts, students and employers have been able to figure out GPAs on their own and can still do so now,” said Law School spokesperson Robb London.
Students said that the change is understandable, but that they would have appreciated an explicit notification of the adjustment, especially considering the relatively newness of Pass-Fail.
“I really don’t care what system I am graded under,” said third-year law student William O. Scharf. “But I want to know my grading scale before going into my classes. It’s that lack of sureness that bothers everybody.”
Dein said she is currently compiling students’ concerns in a letter to Dean of the Law School Martha L. Minow.
“At the very least [the administration] should send out explanatory e-mail about the changes,” Dein said.
She added that some students have suggested using the formulas internally for Latin Honors but leaving it off of the transcript.
Regardless of the new system, “if you’re looking through a stack of Harvard transcripts, it’s easy to see who is doing well and who isn’t,” Scharf said.
He said he does not believe the school is obligated to spell out its grade distribution, but that a system needs to be in place long enough that there is “precedent and accumulated wisdom” about what each grade means.
“Now we are out at sea,” Scharf said. “I could not pin-point my position in my class within 20 percentiles. I have no idea where I stand.”
Weber said he believes the heightened anxiety is a result of the uncertainties in the job market.
“If we were in a booming market, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion,” Weber said, pointing to stable employment rates in the last few years as proof that even in the worst economic times, Harvard graduates are desirable hires. “It has nothing to do with what our grading system is.”
—Staff writer Zoe A.Y. Weinberg can be reached at email@example.com.
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