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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Pass/Fail This Semester

Cornell Law School has just adopted a proposal to make all grades pass/fail this semester. Under the circumstances, I think this is probably the right thing for most law schools to adopt. Granted, some law schools may not be able to do this without the approval of their university, and there may be other considerations there. But I think all of us should give this idea careful consideration in the coming weeks.

Posted by Gerard Magliocca on March 17, 2020 at 07:23 AM | Permalink


Mike, I don't mean to step on Howard's toes here, but the Cornell memo is here: https://www.lawschool.cornell.edu/COVID-19/upload/Spring-2020-Grading-Proposal.pdf. It ignores a vast array of counterarguments and curtly downplays many others (I appreciate that reasonable minds can differ on these points), but there's no public memo mentioning all of this and fairly laying out the counterarguments. Rest assured that there are private memos doing so. Schools considering P/F should consider how similarly or differently their students are situated to those at Cornell ...

Posted by: Jason Kilborn | Mar 19, 2020 8:15:46 PM

Howard: Do you have a link to the faculty committee memorandum you mention in your post?

Posted by: Mike Hutter | Mar 19, 2020 12:40:36 PM

Derek, your suggestion is close to what our Academic Affairs committee tentatively favors; i.e., allowing for individually tailored solutions for individual problems. If students want to elect P/F late, or withdraw late, or take an incomplete, or any number of other alternatives, these bespoke solutions seem much more effective, equitable, and proportionate than a blanket policy of forced P/Fs when a significant portion of the class desperately does not want this, in part due to many of the reasons mentioned earlier (and others). Every solution comes with its own set of problems, of course (e.g., overwhelming the admin with requests for individual variances), and there is certainly no one right or best solution. But I think we owe it to our students to consider quite carefully the best solution for each of our individual and likely widely varying communities. Our faculty is meeting on this on Monday (remotely via WebEx probably--that should be something!), and I'll be monitoring commentary on this hottest of hot topics all weekend.

Posted by: Jason Kilborn | Mar 19, 2020 9:49:28 AM

There is a memorandum from a faculty committee to the faculty making the internet rounds. It does a great job laying out the arguments for all of this.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 18, 2020 7:27:34 AM

Hate auto spell check -- ill

Posted by: sam tenenbaum | Mar 17, 2020 11:36:04 PM

I haven't heard anyone articulate the reason to switch to pass fail. Why? Schools haven't been closed, classes are ongoing and work is being done. NY this past week had students take their bar exam. The bar in all likelihood will be held as scheduled. Students need grades for jobs, class rank and to be sure they can stay in school. Also as a clinician the same reasons to have grades in doctrinal courses apply to us. If a student becomes I'll they can have the same accommodation students normally get when sick. Trying to operate as normal as possible is a good.

Posted by: sam tenenbaum | Mar 17, 2020 11:32:43 PM


Would it at least make sense to allow students who could have initially elected to take a class P/F to now change from A-F to P/F?

If I'm recalling my law school days correctly, I could elect to take up to 2 classes P/F (excluding a few, like 1L courses). Is there any reason not to allow students to make a change now?

It doesn't provide any help to students who have used their P/F limit, but for everyone else it provides a bit of a pressure valve.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Mar 17, 2020 1:04:19 PM

Did they approve it? Last I saw (last night) was a proposal from a committee to the faculty. That probably would be approved, but had not been.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 17, 2020 11:28:29 AM

WAY more to consider here, especially the very serious negative consequences of adopting pass-fail--this may be sensible for the rarified elite, but for "most" schools, where sorting among students, bar-passage issues, and motivation issues are far more acute, P/F is less solution and more problem. The following is a taste of the complicated issues implicated, from a deans' listserv:

Most of the schools ... are in the middle grappling with this issue. Many noted that their faculty and students are split on the issue.

From the few schools that have decided this issue, they are not changing their grading system, though people noted that the situation could change. For example, some schools might change their stances if many of their students and faculty became ill (though even those schools were uncertain about how moving to a pass/fail system would fully address that problem). Here are common responses.

1. Bar Issues If Pass/Fail

Bar regulations are one reason why some are not moving to a pass/fail system. For example, moving to a pass/fail system could put graduates at risk of being ineligible for the bar or deny, or substantially limit, students’ ability to do externship placements for credit in the future, with the biggest impact occurring for 1L and 2L classes. It also could necessitate a university and accreditor waiver of degree requirements, depending upon current limits on the number of P/F credits.

2. Opportunity for Students to Raise Their Grades This Semester

Some schools are leaning towards no change because students, particularly 1Ls, want the opportunity to bring their grades up. Pass grades have no impact on cumulative GPA. As a result, it would be impossible for students who went on probation to achieve good standing after this spring semester. For most of these students, they have the spring and summer term to achieve good standing, but the number of credits they can earn in the summer is restricted to a maximum of 9 and some schools do not recommend that students who have not performed well take such a heavy load in the summer due to its accelerated pace. There may also be a handful of students for whom spring is the final semester to achieve good standing.

3. Concern About Faculty Choosing to Exercise the Fail Option Too Readily

Some schools worry that, with only two choices (pass or fail), faculty will be more likely to choose fail as an option for a substandard performance (rather than do what they might normally do, which is give a low grade rather than a “fail.” Failing, of course, is devastating to a student’s GPA and transcript. As part of this approach, some schools are considering loosening the median grade requirements and encouraging faculty to be lenient and understanding. Faculty may also be asked to be more willing to provide an exam accommodation for a parenting student, with children at home because of closed daycare and schools.

Overall, these schools believe that a pass/fail system might exacerbate equity issues because faculty are more likely to fail students if they have only two options.

4. No Change Needed Because Take-Home Exams Are Regularly Used (or Non-Traditional Grading System Already), All Students Are Treated the Same, and the Circumstances Are Not Truly Extraordinary

Others indicated that students were clearly told to assume that their exams will be take-home (with, perhaps, online multiple choice or other graded online assignments). At a number of schools, faculty members regularly give take-home exams under usual circumstances, and students have come to expect take-home exams as part of the normal variety of exams they may receive. Of course, there was recognition that the current conditions are extraordinary, but among these schools, there was a general sense that a pass/fail system would not address the issues at hand.

5. Different Approaches for Different Types of Courses

In clinics, students are doing different work from each other, and there is no sense of grading disadvantage. But in simulation classes such as trial advocacy, where some students might get an in-person trial and others might have to do trials or other exercises remotely, some schools prefer allowing each student in those classes to individually opt into either pass/fail grading or remain under a letter grade regime.

Posted by: Jason Kilborn | Mar 17, 2020 10:27:24 AM

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