What’s the Point of Eliminating Letter Grades?

by Kevin Jon Heller

I see that my alma mater, Stanford, is set to formally eliminate letter grades. Beginning perhaps as early as fall, students will receive one of four marks for their work: honors, pass, restricted credit, and no credit. Stanford will be the third major law school to eliminate grades, joining Berkeley and Yale.

I have nothing against the change, notwithstanding a bit of retroactive jealousy. But here’s my question: aren’t the new marks just grades by other names? Consider Berkeley’s system, which awards high honors, honors, pass and fail. That looks suspiciously like A, B, C, and fail — just without the pluses and minuses.

Frankly, the changes seem like faux egalitarianism to me. As the article makes clear, although Stanford students support the change, they still want to ensure that a decent percentage of them can receive the “best” grades:

Daniel Bernstein, heading into his third year at Stanford Law School and a member of the Law Review staff, said, “most students have reacted positively” to the grade reforms. “Most students wanted it all along and lobbied for it,” he said.

Bernstein, of Washington, D.C., said he didn’t know what is in the wind for the top grad quota, but he thinks caps should be higher than the 10 percent allowed at Berkeley.

“You want to give students a bigger chance to hear honors and the chance to reward student initiative and distinguish the better students,” he said. “I’m not sure, but a 25 percent to 35 percent cap would be good … or give professors a band within which to work,” he said.

“If you’re going to eliminate grades you still need a way to distinguish performance,” Bernstein said.

Exactly. Let’s face it: ranking students is an important, if regrettable, function of legal education. That’s why students want to go to prestigious law schools, and that’s why students at prestigious law schools want to “distinguish” themselves from their peers. Same as it ever was, to quote the eminent legal scholar David Byrne.

When the first prestigious law school goes straight pass/fail, call me.


4 Responses

  1. This does seem rather silly. I can’t think of a good reason for a change of this sort (and frankly, I think it’s irrelevant whether or not students support the change).

    At my school there are no pluses or minuses and I’ve always thought that is not at all helpful, as there are students with, say, high “B”s and low “B”s, and there is a significant difference between the two marks (close to an ‘A’ and to a ‘C’ respectively).

  2. Yeah, I agree that this sounds pretty ridiculous. Here’s one idea why it might be good, though: maybe they’re trying to recalibrate the grades to communicate more accurately what they really mean. In high school and in most colleges, an A is the grade you should get if you were paying attention in class and doing your homework. A C is a grade to be embarrassed by. Of course, things are a bit more intense at a top-ranked law school. If a B or a C is the level at which a student is performing at a perfectly acceptable and adequate caliber, it seems reasonable to rename that “pass”, and rename the A as “honors” or “high honors” to reflect that it’s really an impressive achievement.

  3. Kevin just likes making his students cry.

    Fess up!

  4. At Melbourne University we get first class honours, second class honours A, second class honours b, third class honours, pass and fail (i think thats all of them).

    I think this means that it’s easier to get an ‘honours’ degree – even if its third class honours.

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