Paul L. Caron

Monday, March 23, 2020

Adler: Grading In The Time Of Coronavirus — For Most Law Schools, Pass/Fail Is A Mistake

Jonathan H. Adler (Case Western), Grading in the Time of Coronavirus:

CoronavirusFor most law schools, switching to across-the-board pass/fail grading would be a mistake.

The Covid-19 pandemic is creating lots of challenges to business-as-usual. Legal education is no exception. Courses are moving online, and professors and students alike are being forced to adapt.

As noted at TaxProf blog, many schools are moving to Pass/Fail grading. UCLA's Noah Zatz makes a case for this move at The Faculty Lounge.

I understand the impetus for this shift. The disruption and dread triggered by the pandemic is real, and for many it is quite severe.  Nonetheless, I believe making all grades pass/fail (or pass/no credit) for the spring 2020 semester would be a mistake, especially for all but a handful of law schools. As I suggested to my colleagues at Case Western, I believe such a policy would be unfair to our students and send the wrong message about learning in a time of upheaval or crisis. A better alternative is to allow students pass/no-credit option (either before, or even after, receiving their grades). Let me explain why.

As a general principle, we should be compassionate to students who face difficult circumstances. But compassion does not mean anything goes. We generally recognize that there are good and bad ways to be compassionate. There are always students who face hardship and who, for reasons beyond their control, don't achieve their potential in a given course or semester. We make accommodations for those students on the margin, as we should, but rarely in ways that erase all the consequences of their hardship. Indeed, accommodating to that degree is often impossible to do. Significantly, we generally resist making changes that compromise other aspects of what we do as an educational institution or that potentially disadvantage other students. I think that same principle applies to the current situation.

The first problem with eliminating real grading for all students is that it will discourage students from focusing on their studies at the margin. ...

The second problem with such a policy is that it penalizes those students who are capable of excelling under these circumstances. ...

A third problem with eliminating grades for a semester at most law schools is that it will remove or reduce those opportunities that are available to high-achieving students. ... One reason law schools grade (and curve) in the first place is because identifying high-achieving students is important. ... As a practical matter, at most law schools, eliminating letter grades for a semester will make it harder for the current cohort of students to obtain highly competitive positions, particularly insofar as they are in competition with students from higher ranked schools. ...

A fourth and related problem is that the leveling represented by eliminating grades is likely to disproportionately affect students from disadvantaged backgrounds who were likely to excel despite these exigent circumstances, including those who are first generation law students.

A fifth problem is that eliminating all grading for this semester will unduly (and unfairly) exaggerate the importance of first-semester grades for 1Ls. ...

None of the above means that law schools should do nothing. As I noted at the beginning, I think reasonable accommodations should be made. In my view, an optional pass/no-credit option represents a compassionate release valve for those students most disrupted or harmed by who need that assistance and does the least harm to other competing interests, including the need to encourage our students who can to stay engaged and continue to learn. Is such an approach perfect? Of course not. Might some students still find the current situation particularly difficult and the prospect of grades—even the potential of grades—an added source of stress?  Yes. Might some other students "game" the system or take advantage? Yes again. I nonetheless believe this is a better alternative to pass/fail grades across the board.

On a personal level, I can say that switching to pass-fail grading would certainly make my life easier. It would simplify grading, reduce my stress levels, and give me more time to do other things. But, for the reasons I noted above, I also think it would be irresponsible. I am tremendously privileged to have the opportunity to be a legal academic and I take my responsibilities to my students and my institution very seriously. If I believed across-the-board pass-fail grading were in their interest I would embrace it. But I do not, so I will not. In this and other related decisions, I believe law schools should be focus on what measures are most consistent with their underlying mission, and I believe a shift to mandatory, across-the-board pass/fail grading for the Spring 2020 semester would be a mistake.

UPDATE: A quick clarification that I should have included in the original post is that I can imagine specific circumstances arising in individual classes or programs that could justify a switch to pass/fail or pass/no-credit grading for an individual class. My argument is about whether the current circumstances justify such a switch across the board.

For complete TaxProf Blog coverage of the coronavirus, see here.

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