Are Grades Still Necessary? We Don’t Think So


From the Editorial Board:

After our investigation of the grading curve – which resulted in a resounding “it exists, but we can’t tell you what it is” from the administration – we at the Record are starting to wonder something. If “the competition is over,” if everyone gets a job, if the Sears Prize isn’t even announced, if we don’t know our class rank, and if OCI employers can’t pre-screen candidates, why do we even have grades at all?

We don’t mean that facetiously. What, precisely, is the advantage of continuing to use a traditional letter grading system instead of a pass/fail system, along the lines of Yale’s? As it is, we have a system in which grades seem useful for very little beyond causing an undue amount of aggravation for all involved.

Certainly, employers do look at grades, as do judges and some prestigious fellowships, like the Skadden. However, we wonder whether those few highly competitive employers, judges, and fellowship committees can’t look at law review and journal experience, writing samples, and professor recommendations to come up with essentially the same result.

Indeed, a better result, as students would be evaluated on their ongoing work and connections as opposed to the work of a few singular hours on an exam. Exam performance can be thrown off – and an entire semester derailed – by illness, by a fluke of exam scheduling that schedules tests back-to-back, or by exams consisting of a single issue spotter that an otherwise good student just doesn’t happen to grasp right away.

Meanwhile, while we don’t believe that grades are assigned randomly, as many law students claim, anyone who has ever graded essays of any sort can tell you that ranking them in a meaningful order is not a simple task and that the line between an A- and B+ is very fine indeed.

This proposal may make more work for those selecting students for positions, but we question whether most employers, even federal judges, would be willing miss out on HLS students by only interviewing those on Law Review. The Harvard name does have leverage, and it’s a shame not to use it. And, after all, students at Yale and Berkeley don’t seem to have trouble obtaining employment.

In addition to avoiding the fundamentally arbitrary and artificial aspects of grading, a pass/fail system would carry numerous psychological benefits. First, it would be beneficial for the faculty, who we can’t imagine enjoy spending hours or days pouring over exams and trying to decide whether a student who misses issue A and gets issue B deserves a better grade than a student who does the reverse.

Second, it would avoid the ludicrousness that occurs when you take 1,500 highly competitive people, have them do roughly the same things and work toward roughly the same goals, tell them you’re judging them based on the quality of their performance, and then force them to sit there refreshing a computer screen until the sole arbiter of several months of work pops up. (Although kudos to the Registrar’s office for their new streamlined grade checking system.)

Are we all functional adults who are capable of dealing with that sort of pressure? Sure. Is there any particular reason to force us to? We’re not convinced. And quite honestly, we would have been perfectly happy to go through law school without having to listen to our smart, capable classmates saying things like “I suck at that; I got a B+” or “Oh, I don’t have the grades to do [X]; I’ll just go work at a big firm.” If anything, eliminating grades might allow students to stop mentally crossing off options for themselves, and instead encourage them to take advantage of what HLS has to offer. Could this sort of mental attrition be why HLS turns out so many fewer academics relative to its class size than Yale? It seems like a plausible argument.

And, after all, if we really need to rank people, nobody is stopping the Law Review from holding the write-on competition.