Grading the Curve at HLS


When one 1L student approached his professor to find out why he had received a certain grade, the professor responded, “If you got anywhere between an A and a B, hopefully I got it right.” In another section, the Professor announced before the exam, “Don’t bother to come and ask me why I graded a certain way. I don’t know.”

The disjunction between classroom comprehension and final grades has led some students to suppose that the grading system is inherently random, and to question whether the system is achieving its goals.

“I don’t think we should have grades because they’re arbitrary,” said Mandy Price, 2L. “We should have an objective system where Professors can tell you why you did the way you did. If we’re going to have grades, it should be objective and clear. Right now, the professors don’t even know themselves why they graded a certain way.”

Harvard’s grading curve is centered around a B+, a determination by the Strategic Planning Committee four years ago by cumulatively tallying what the standard grade at Harvard was in the past in order to determine what the recommendation should be.

“I think that there are people in the world outside who would be very surprised to find that B+ is an average grade,” commented Todd Rakoff, Vice Dean for Academic Programming. “They are used to educational institutions in which C is the average grade and they might be tempted to say, ‘what a bunch of softees those Harvard professors are.’ On the other hand, I think that many of our students have the opposite experience, that the average grades they get in law school are lower than the average grades they got in college. From the student’s expectations curve, it might seem like a harsh curve.”

Even if students currently resent the curve, the curve was originally created in order to help students by ensuring equality in grading patterns between different professors. In this way, a student did not suffer from a professor who was an exceptionally harsh grader.

“If you took a first year section in a subject like torts or contracts and said ‘how are the grades in that torts class compared to section 2?,’ you’d find that there was a very different number of different grades being handed out,” said Rakoff. “It seemed unlikely that there was a significant number of smarter students in one particular section or that certain professors got a significant number of smarter students all the time. It was much more likely that different professors had different standards, and that seemed very unfair.”

The way the curve works is that many professors have a raw score, with each question on the final examination worth a certain number of points. They then rank the students based on their raw scores and fit the grades into the recommended curves. The grading curve is only recommended for classes with more than thirty students, as statistical variations in smaller classes may not conform with the overall curve.

“My view is that recommended guidelines are not only good but quite important,” said Frederick Schauer who taught both at the Kennedy School and at the Law School. “There’s a kind of acceleration in the context that people are making decision in uncertainty. Since almost everyone is afraid of being significantly tougher than everyone else, they err on the high side rather than on the low side. Pretty soon, everyone is getting As.”

The curve currently serves as a recommendation, rather than a requirement. Some other law schools have instituted a mandatory grade curve, such that the registrar will automatically spit back grades that don’t conform to the curve.

“It was discussed [whether to make the grading system mandatory], but people thought it was too confining,” reflected Rakoff. “There are sometimes professors who call me who say that ‘I really did have an unusually good class this year,’ and yeah that’s allowed [to then not conform to the curve]. But what professors are expected to do is over the general run of their teaching to conform to the curve.”

The truth is, however, that there is little review of the grading patterns of the individual professors, unless it is first brought to the administration’s attention. Professors are not denied tenure or forced to redo their grades, and for the most part, Rakoff assumes professors have been complying with the curve, though there has been no meaningful review to substantiate that assumption.

“As a routine matter, there’s no official review [of a professor’s grades],” commented Rakoff. “That said, I would go talk to a professor who was way out of line if it came to my attention but I don’t go out looking for it.”

Students are frustrated by the grading curve system because it means that a higher proportion are receiving Bs than they feel would otherwise. This is particularly disturbing to students when grades are so important for on-campus interviewing.

“This range of error is dangerous for someone who is interested in being a competitive firm applicant in 2L interviews,” commented Eli Salomon, 2L. “If someone receives average grades (around a B+) in four of their six classes, then if they receive a B in the other 2, they would be automatically eliminated by several firms with automatic cut-offs, whereas if they received an A-, they would be very attractive applicants.”

There have been suggestions by both the students and the faculty to move to a similar system as Yale which has a pass/fail/honors division. By creating more general categories, a pass/fail/honors system would obviate the need for arbitrary distinctions between As and A minuses.

“There are a large number of pretty good papers that don’t seem particularly different to me, but which I must divide up into several smaller categories based on fairly small and/or incommensurable differences,” commented Professor Carole Steiker in discussing the differences between Yale’s system and Harvard’s system.

There might, however, be disadvantages to Yale’s grading system which are more subtle. Employers and judges still want to distinguish among students at Yale, and in the absence of grades, they may look to more artificial distinctions.

“We have heard of judges giving clerkships to students based on where they went to college and that seemed like worse information than our grades,” asserted Rakoff.

“The serious disadvantage [to Yale’s system] is that some employers — mostly judges seeking law clerks, but other public and private employers as well — will continue to try to get law schools to “rank” their students even in the absence of grades, mostly by contacting individual professors that they know and asking them whom they should

hire,” commented Steiker. “Thus, at places like Yale, there is decreased competition over

grades, but increased competition for faculty mentors — an unpleasant dynamic at best, and one that seems to lead to even greater gender disparities than grades.”

Some professors maintain the need for grading as an incentive for students.

“There are some people who thought that grades are an important incentive, that if you have serious grade distinctions students will work harder and if they work harder, they will learn more,” commented Rakoff.

Students, on the other hand, did not always feel that they needed this additional incentive.

“This isn’t high school, and people don’t need grades to motivate them to do well,” commented Salomon. “We shouldn’t have to worry about grades, we’re all smart. It’s been proven again and again that grades have nothing to do with how good of a lawyer you’ll be, but more to do with whether you play up to the professor’s political position.”

The blind grading system was designed to insure against favoritism and allow students to disagree with their professors’ opinions. Some professors do not appreciate blind grading since it means they can’t take class participation into account.

“I’m not a big fan of totally blind grading,” commented Schauer. “I’d rather have the freedom to use pedagogical methods that are inconsistent with
blind grading.”

The school’s policy is, however, that for classes of 50 students or more, a professor must mark all his own papers – a unique feature of Harvard law school – without knowing the student’s identity in order to eliminate any bias.

“It seems right,” commented Rakoff. “I don’t trust my memory of what people said well enough to really know who was good or bad. I don’t know how accurate I would be. But even if I kept daily notes to try to be more accurate, you would have to work very hard to make sure that the opportunities to speak were very evenly distributed but there just are some people who push themselves forward in a big class and there are people who are more retiring. I run participatory classes, but I’m not in favor of using it as an incentive.”

Any change to the grading system at Harvard would likely have to be a complete change rather than a “jiggling” of the current system, according to Rakoff. And many students would welcome that change.

“Why does HLS continue to maintain a system whose only function is to detriment bright people who cannot perform well on law school exams?” questioned Salomon. “It is common knowledge that law school exam grades are not good indicators of intelligence, and that many law school classes have nothing to do with the legal practice areas that students will ultimately enter. There’s no doubt that the grading system at HLS has been the source of depression for many bright students who came in with a promising background and thought the world was their oyster, only to be screwed over by a professor giving them a B- for disagreeing with their theories or views.”

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