Stanford Law Drops Letter Grades

Citing benefits to learning environment, faculty vote to adopt a system similar to those at Yale and Berkeley law schools. Is Harvard next?
June 2, 2008

The faculty at Stanford Law School voted last week to approve a grade reform proposal that would eliminate letters and replace them with four levels of achievement. The decision came after a long period of discussion among students and faculty that weighed issues such as collegiality, anxiety and fairness. The debate may be spreading to other law schools across the country.

Stanford's new system -- which will award grades of honors, pass, restricted credit and no credit -- resembles that at Yale Law School, whose four grades are honors, pass, low pass and fail. Across the bay, the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law also eschews letter grades but has two levels above pass: honors and high honors.

Those who support the change at Stanford argue that shifting from the precision of letter grades to broader categories will reduce some pressure and refocus students' and professors' energies on classroom learning. Others worry that de-emphasizing students' GPAs could disadvantage them with potential employers, although that hasn't proven to be an issue with new Yale or Berkeley lawyers.

"The new system includes a shared norm for the proportion of honors to be awarded in both exam and paper courses. No grading system is perfect, but the consensus is that the reform will have significant pedagogical benefits, including that it encourages greater flexibility and innovation in the classroom and in designing metrics for evaluating student work," wrote Stanford Law dean Larry Kramer to students and faculty in an e-mail on Thursday, as first reported by the blog Above the Law.

"As you may know, we spent all year studying the issue and discussing the likely advantages for recruiting students, placing our graduates in practice and clerkships, reducing the disparity between on-mean and off-mean courses, and, above all, enhancing the intellectual environment of the law school."

Now that three of the most elite law schools in the nation have opted for alternatives to traditional grading systems, some eyes will inevitably turn to Cambridge. Early in the decade, Harvard Law School considered a similar move. With Stanford's announcement, rumors have swirled that Harvard had already or would soon adopt a modified pass/fail system of its own. Officials at the school deny that such a decision has been made but acknowledge that the topic is under discussion.

"Many law schools, including Harvard, are looking at ways to simplify grading. We're not at all surprised by Stanford's decision," said Michael Armini, assistant dean for communications at the law school.

In an interview, Kramer said that many of the details of the Stanford shift have yet to be worked out, including when exactly it will take effect. He said the transition will likely occur this September or the following academic year. Other issues include how to ease existing students into the new system, and how to award honors. For example, membership in the national law honor society Order of the Coif is limited to the top 10 percent of each class by grade point average. Honors levels (magna cum laude, etc.) are awarded on a similar basis.

Such distinctions could defeat "some of the purpose of the grading system shift," he said, which is to "reduce the focus on that as opposed to the focus on learning" in the classroom.

Discussions began in earnest before the academic year began, Kramer said. “Each summer, I have coffee or lunch with everyone on the faculty," he said. "Last summer, during the course of our lunches I was surprised how many people raised concerns about the grading system.... Most people seemed also to be thinking in the same general direction, which is to reduce the number of discriminators.”

He said the word, properly understood, applies to Stanford's current system, which ranges from F to A+, based on numerical equivalents whose increments are accurate to a tenth of a point. On top of that, he said, some courses are "on-mean" and some are off, depending on whether the professors grade to a curve based on the mean score. As a result, some students shopped for classes partially based on the grading system employed. It was time to "maybe think about wiping the slate clean and coming up with something simpler," he said.

The grading issue received more attention last fall, when a first-year student sent a mass e-mail encouraging his classmates to take the entire semester pass/fail (or "3k," as students call it, for "credit, reduced credit, no credit"). Stanford allows students to take a limited number of classes pass/fail in their second and third years, but they can opt to do so for their entire schedule only in the first semester of their first year. Still, Kramer said, only one or two students traditionally take advantage of the option.

Not this year. The student, John Kimble, circulated an e-mail containing a link to a shareable file on Google Docs with a modifiable list for students who pledged "to 3k." The list had the effect of assuring them that if they decided to take the plunge, they wouldn't be alone and wouldn't risk being singled out by potential summer employers. By publicly signaling their intention, they avoided what some students referred to as a "prisoner's dilemma" -- it would only be effective if they were certain that a critical mass would do so simultaneously. Between 40 and 50 students, about a third of the class, took their entire first semester pass/fail.

“The stress level in my classes was mounting. It was reaching kind of neurotic levels, and it was kind of undermining the experience," said Kimble, who sent out the e-mail in November, before the pass/fail deadline. He added that his class was a sort of "guinea pig" that would serve as a useful "control group" in determining whether students performed differently in pass/fail classes. Their decisions on which grading system to use, he noted, came after most of the semester's work was already complete (but before finals).

Stanford, like Yale, has a small student body and, Kimble said, it's "pretty mellow for a law school." Still, the arguments being made on both sides of the grading debate reflect the issues sure to face other law schools considering a similar reform.

Above the Law, for example, argued that "this may be a case of 'be careful for what you wish for, you might just get it.' The disadvantage of what we'd call an 'under-articulated' grading system, like the one used by our alma mater, is that there are fewer opportunities to distinguish yourself academically." Or, on the flip side, it would theoretically be easier to coast through school. But Kramer responded to such arguments by noting that, with an average class size of 12, "it’s kind of hard to just check out."

Some commenters on the blog argued that the grade reform would make Harvard Law graduates look comparatively more impressive, while others urged Harvard to follow suit, suggesting that Stanford's system could even attract more students accepted to both schools.

"This system is far superior to a traditional system," wrote another. "Grading is so subjective -- it has much more to do with how well you think like the professor than how well you actually understand the law. I shouldn't get a lower grade than someone else simply because he is as weird as the person teaching the course."

Notably, the debate is mostly confined to the elite few law schools. Even schools outside the top three or four, but still ranked in the top 20, might find advantages to remaining with letter grades, some argued, if only to provide students with the chance to distinguish themselves as on par with their peers at Harvard, Stanford and Yale.

"Good for them, but this fluffy grading is the luxury of schools in like the Top 5 where grades don't matter as much anyway," wrote one commenter. "If you went to a 20-something school like I did, you need to be able to show you were in the top-whatever %% of your class to get into BigLaw, let alone Federal clerkships."


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top