Let’s Take This Period of Unprecedented Change to Consider How Grading Practices Can Affect Issues of Diversity and Inclusion in Our Law Schools

Jennifer S. Bard, Visiting Professor, University of Florida, Levin College of Law

For the last half of spring semester 2020, law schools all over the country were forced to change their method of instruction, delivery of final exams, and (in many cases) grading practices because of the demands for physical isolation following the outbreak of Covid-19.  Now that the semester is over, there is a further round of disruption as many states have delayed or even cancelled their bar exams, some have granted graduates diploma privileges, while others bravely go ahead in the face of a possibility that they will have to cancel at the last minute because of ever-rising rates of infection. 

Like the opportunities that may arise when a river is drained and a ship revealed, there may never again be such an opportunity for us to consider what role we play in the glacially slow diversification of the legal profession and how we can make our law schools more equitable, inclusive, challenging, and effective for all of our students—not just those for whom it has been particularly well suited.

With many things to choose from, my starting point for looking at things we rarely question is the marrow deep belief that we owe it to our students to sort them for the benefit of large law firms—even when our employment profile shows that very few of our students will ever work at such a place.  Since the threshold for this opportunity is a top 5 or perhaps 10 percent class rank, it may seem odd, on reflection, that we have designed a curriculum designed to compare students that may have many undesirable consequences including undermining self-esteem, discouraging learning for learning’s sake, and contributing to the lack of diversity in the legal profession.  

Over the years, other justifications have been added such as the need to motivate students or assess their progress but never have we had such a good opportunity to see what law school is like without grades or, more to the point, comparative curves.

Here are some Practices We Might Question

The Primacy of First Semester Grades

One result of the decision to go pass/fail (or some variation of the words) was to “freeze” first year first semester class ranks because it was impossible to produce comparative curves

The resulting phenomena gives us a chance to ask ourselves  some tough questions:

  1. Do First Semester Grades Reflect What Students Bring to Law School Rather Than What We Bring to Them? OR Do Students Who Come in Knowing the Rules Get Better First Semester Grades?

Many students, very often First Generation Students, but also some facing racial or gender identity or expression based discrimination, frequently tell us (and the many researchers who study first generation college students) some version of “everyone knew the game but me and by the time I figured it out, it was too late.” And while students living with disabilities might intersect with any of these groups, they also are often using new adaptive equipment and certainly facing new challenges that they may have been able to mitigate in college.

Certainly many of our students do know the game from the start.  The recent AALS survey “Before the JD” found a disproportionate number of students who ended up going to law school had parents who were either lawyers or professionals. While students have, themselves, created organizations to support each-other usually with the enthusiastic support of the law school it may not be enough.

Our challenge going forward is that history is told by the victors.  We can see the students who were not comfortable the first semester but then continued to graduate “at the top of their class” (a vague term that usually means somewhere in the top 20%), but we don’t hear from the ones who didn’t draw attention through academic distress, but also didn’t thrive.

It would be helpful to know more–and many schools do know more about their own students.  But so little of this information is published.

Much is being done in supplemental programs- to name them is to leave many out- such as pre-first semester programs, orientation programs  and excellent pre-law institutes like the Tennessee Institute for Pre-Law , and in wonderful conferences organized by the National Black Law Students AssociationLavender Law, the National Association of Law Students with Disabilities,  and so many others.  

But how much more effective would it be to have a curriculum that was truly equitable and inclusive – all the way through?

2. Did Pass/Fail Grading Help Learning, Hinder Learning, or None of the Above?

Across the board pass/fail grading that makes no effort to compare students to each other is so unusual as to make any observations worth considering. The expectation was a distressing list of bad results-students putting in less effort during class, performing worse on exams — but did that really happen?

3. Ditto Open Book Exams

As above, it would be interesting to test, in the fall, the content knowledge of students who took open exams.  Not so much as to compare them with past classes, but to see what how much they learned.

4. What Will Be the Long Term Effect of the Delayed or Cancelled Bar Exams–and How Might that Change Our Curriculums?

The opportunity presented by the necessary changes to the bar exam is already in very good hands, (thank you AccesLex) but it’s still worth considering what the future will look like in states which choose provisional or full licensure.  Even decisions to delay the bar exam could raise issues of an on-going, career long licensing process, much as many doctors (but not all) must take requalifying exams every ten years to retain their “Board Certificate.” What would that mean for law schools?

To Be Continued: Part II: What Can We Learn from the Delay of Fall On-Campus Interviewing?   

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