How Do You Grade the Work of Law Students? Is Student Performance in Part a Function of the Professor’s Competence in Teaching the Materials?

At the ABA Law Journal Law News Now, Debra Cassens Weiss writes about Greta Van Susteren and her law school grading practices during her tenure as an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown Law School 1984-1999.

What interested me is this quotation:

This may be a little bit bizarre, but in a setting, at least at Georgetown, if someone is not doing well, I think it’s the professor’s fault. The people there pay a lot of money, and they’re very aggressive and they’re hard workers.

This is a side of the law school equation that is not often discussed, but that quotation certainly reflects my own views for the period that I taught law as FFA Lecturer for Anglo-American Law, Legal Writing and Legal Research at Trier Law School (1998-2003).

At the beginning of each semester, I made it clear to the students that if everyone wrote A’s on the final exam and on their written and research work, they would all get A’s. Indeed, I always regarded it is my own failing in teaching if the results were substantially less than that. It was my job to get the material through to the students. In fact, most of the students did get A’s and B’s, with fewer C’s and D’s, and only a few F’s.

I always gave a multiple question final examination with relatively objective correct answers, and combined this grade with the grades obtained on the legal research and writing projects. Indeed, since I had about 200 students per semester, I had up to 20 student assistants who assisted me in the grading of papers, using a master answer sheet, although I subsequently examined every student’s papers and exams again personally, and did change grades, if required. In any case, nothing thrilled me more than to see answers reflecting that the student had indeed assimilated the materials to be learned. That was certainly one of my greatest rewards in teaching, topped only perhaps by the opportunity to interact on a high level with young, gifted people.

My grading practices were in stark contrast to the normal practices in German law examinations, where, by tradition, good grades are rarely given. The German law teaching system regards the study of law more as a gauntlet system to be endured, with first-year students in Civil Law (Zivilrecht), Criminal Law (Strafrecht) and Public Law (Öffentliches Recht) being failed in their first examinations in numbers approaching 50% or more.

In my opinion, this in part is due to the fact that there is nothing comparable to the LSAT in Germany. In fact, in Germany students with good high school grades can study law right after graduation from German high school (German Gymnasium), rather than, as in the American system, only after college graduation and only if they have good LSAT scores, showing thereby the kind of logical acumen which is required for law study. The result of this initial lack of selection is that one often finds 1st-year students in German law schools whose acumen for law is minimal.

I tried to get around this problem by telling my students, who were almost all 1st-year law students with mostly excellent grades in high school, that about 1/3 of them would not make it to the semester’s final examination, not only because of problems in their German law courses, but because they would themselves acknowledge that they were in the wrong field and would move on to a different career path. Indeed, I tried to advise students accordingly, based upon the papers that they submitted in my courses. There were for example numerous students gifted in writing literature, but poorly suited for law. I advised them to change their course of study.

Accordingly, in our view some bad judgment is at work in the new Michigan Law School Special Admissions Program for the 2010 term where Michigan undergrad applicants will not even be allowed to take the LSAT, but are required to have a grade point of 3.8 or higher to apply for law school. Based on our experience at Trier, where numerous students with straight A’s in the German high schools were not necessarily a right fit for law school – but well suited for other professions, this appears to be a policy of wishful thinking rather than an admissions policy based on obtaining the best available information about each law school applicant.

Update: As if our ESP antennas were working at full power in making the above posting on the above topic, we discovered this morning (Oct. 1) from Martha Neil at the ABA Law Journal Law News Now (via Brian Leitner) that Harvard Law School has just adopted a modified pass/fail system (honors-pass-low pass-fail) similar to that used at Stanford Law School and Yale Law School, dropping letter grades.

Stanford Law School effective graduating class 2011 applies a system which grades by the labels honors, pass, restricted credit and no credit.

Yale has honors, pass, low pass, credit, failure, requirement completed (RC).

Berkeley has an intricate quota system which is described at Berkeley Law Grading Policy as follows (get out your calculator):

Up until the fall 1997, students received one of four grades in courses at Berkeley Law: High Honors (HH), Honors (H), Pass (P) or No Credit (NC). In fall 1997, a grade of Substandard Pass (PC), which falls between Pass and No Credit, was added; this grade indicates that the student received credit for the course but the work was of low quality. In first-year classes, the curve for honors grades is strict – the top 40 percent of the class receives honors grades, with 10 percent of the class receiving High Honors and the next 30 percent receiving Honors. There is no required curve for the grades of Pass and below, and faculty members are not required to give any Substandard Pass or No Credit grades. In second- and third-year classes, up to 45 percent of the class can receive honors grades, of which up to 15 percent of the class can receive High Honors. In small seminar classes, the curve still exists, but it is further relaxed. A very few courses are graded on a Credit (CR)/No Pass (NP) basis.

Basically, that is similar to the stodgy virtual quota system used in Germany, only here at an elevated grading level. It is unfortunate that the assignment of these “word” grades has little to do with actual performance, either by students or professors, but merely reflect a student’s percentage standing in his or her class. The Berkeley system is no great improvement over letter grading.

At the least, if no letter grades are used, any “terms” used as “grades” should reflect whether a student has understood the material well, satisfactorily, unsatisfactorily, or as good as not at all. This can vary from course to course, from professor to professor, from student to student, and from year to year. To have a fixed quota system is, in the eyes of this observer, rather absurd.

Nuts & Boalts comments on the grading developments.

Georgetown University Law Center will not be following suit.

The Yale Daily News has a detailed article by Isaac Arnsdorf about recent events in law school top echelons.

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