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Stanford Law Drops Letter Grades

Publication Date: 
June 02, 2008
Inside Higher Ed
Andy Guess

Dean Larry Kramer is quoted in Inside Higher Ed about the decision by the Law School to change the grading system:

"The new system includes a shared norm for the proportion of honors to be awarded in both exam and paper courses. No grading system is perfect, but the consensus is that the reform will have significant pedagogical benefits, including that it encourages greater flexibility and innovation in the classroom and in designing metrics for evaluating student work,” wrote Stanford Law dean Larry Kramer to students and faculty in an e-mail on Thursday, as first reported by the blog Above the Law.


In an interview, Kramer said that many of the details of the Stanford shift have yet to be worked out, including when exactly it will take effect. He said the transition will likely occur this September or the following academic year. Other issues include how to ease existing students into the new system, and how to award honors. For example, membership in the national law honor society Order of the Coif is limited to the top 10 percent of each class by grade point average. Honors levels (magna cum laude, etc.) are awarded on a similar basis.

Such distinctions could defeat “some of the purpose of the grading system shift,” he said, which is to “reduce the focus on that as opposed to the focus on learning” in the classroom.

Discussions began in earnest before the academic year began, Kramer said. “Each summer, I have coffee or lunch with everyone on the faculty,” he said. “Last summer, during the course of our lunches I was surprised how many people raised concerns about the grading system.... Most people seemed also to be thinking in the same general direction, which is to reduce the number of discriminators.”

He said the word, properly understood, applies to Stanford’s current system, which ranges from F to A+, based on numerical equivalents whose increments are accurate to a tenth of a point. On top of that, he said, some courses are “on-mean” and some are off, depending on whether the professors grade to a curve based on the mean score. As a result, some students shopped for classes partially based on the grading system employed. It was time to “maybe think about wiping the slate clean and coming up with something simpler,” he said.

The grading issue received more attention last fall, when a first-year student sent a mass e-mail encouraging his classmates to take the entire semester pass/fail (or “3k,” as students call it, for “credit, reduced credit, no credit"). Stanford allows students to take a limited number of classes pass/fail in their second and third years, but they can opt to do so for their entire schedule only in the first semester of their first year. Still, Kramer said, only one or two students traditionally take advantage of the option.


To the criticism of an ‘under-articulated’ grading system Dean Kramer responds:

... with an average class size of 12, “it’s kind of hard to just check out.”