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Stanford Law School Grade Reform - Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Publication Date: 
October 01, 2008
Stanford Law School

What is the change?

On May 28, 2008, the law school faculty voted to adopt a grade reform proposal that will change the law school’s grading system to an honors, pass, restricted credit, fail system for all semesters/quarters. The new system includes a shared norm for the proportion of honors to be awarded in both exam and paper courses.

We will no longer use or award the Order of the Coif or “Graduation with Distinction” honors. Instead, prizes will be awarded in individual courses to recognize outstanding student performance. In first-year required classes, 2 prizes will be available in small sections, and 4 in large sections. In advanced classes, professors have discretion whether and how many prizes to award. The maximum guideline for all courses will be one per every 15 students. Prizes will be registered on student transcripts.

When will the new system go into effect?

The policy is effective beginning this term (fall 2008) and it will apply to the class of 2010 onward. Our new policy does not apply to the class of 2009, which will remain on the old grading and honors system.

What was the previous grading system at SLS?

Under the previous grading system, a student would receive one of 21 numerical grades ranging from 2.1 to 4.3 (awarded in increments of .1), with a rigidly enforced 3.4 mean. Each grade had a letter equivalent, ranging from A+ to F.

JD students also had the option to take any or all of their first-semester, first-year courses on the optional “3K” grading basis (this system used the symbols K, RK, and NK, which translated into credit, restricted credit, and no credit.) No matter what selection a student made in the first semester, after the first semester, JD students were allowed to take no more than two courses on the optional 3K grading basis. All other work for the JD degree had to be taken on the grading system employing letter grades and numerical equivalents (with the exception of courses that were “mandatory 3K” per the instructor).

Why did Stanford reform its grading system?

Our previous grading system had been pieced together over time and through many incremental reforms, and it had become dysfunctional. For example, there was a rigidly enforced mean under the previous system, which meant that if one student did an outstanding job and deserved a 4.3, the only way to reward her or him was by lowering the grades of classmates to preserve the mean. But, many courses were “off mean,” meaning that instructors could give whatever grades they wanted. Predictably, they awarded high grades freely, and so whether a class was “on” or “off” mean became a significant factor in student course selection.

What’s more, the outcomes of our grading system conveyed a false sense of precision in describing differences among students, especially to employers.

Under the new grading system, we won’t have to translate student performance into a single, numerical measure. Faculty will be able to experiment with the kinds of work they assign, and students will take courses based on the content of the class and whether it suits their educational needs, rather than on whether the course is being graded “on” mean or “off” mean.

Our belief is that the award of individual honors for outstanding performance in specific classes better fits our pedagogic goals than the raw end-of-school ranking Coif and Distinction required. We also believe that the new policy will send a stronger, earlier signal to employers about the immense and diverse talents of all of our students.

Stanford Law School students are extraordinary. They bring so much more to the table than can ever be conveyed in a number like 3.785. Our new grading system should lead those who hire them to see that, and to act on it.