Commencing, Saying Goodbye, And “Ditching” C Grades?

Yesterday,  I sat on the stage of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) and for the 24th time fondly watched law students traverse the stage, receive their juris doctoris diploma, and begin their post-law school lives.  I listened to my 24th Commencement Speaker,  National Public Radio’s Nina Totenberg.  She urged law graduates to look to courageous and humble role models including  Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., who pioneered equal access to justice and reminded us that “it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.”   Ms. Totenberg and other honored speakers, including the student representative, did not ignore the difficult economy these graduates face.  They just did not let such challenges limit the enjoyment of the spectacularly beautiful day or define the worth of the graduates. There was an infectious air of optimism and hope honoring the hard work done, the dreams shared, and the knowledge, skills and abilities acquired. One of those graduates was this blog’s own Stephanie Gianchristofaro-Partyka who has spent the past year assisting in all things “Best Practices. ”  We cross our fingers along with her as she waits to hear back from criminal defense employers.   Good-bye, thank you, and good-luck to Stephanie from this blog’s contributors and readers!

Once the ceremony ended and the last photos with families were taken, faculty returned to grading! The ABA Weekly Newsletter and the Wall Street Journal Law Blog http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2013/05/10/law-prof-lets-scrap-the-gentlemans-c/ , have both reported on a grading proposal by University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Professor Joshua Silverstein, namely that  “Law Schools Should Mostly Ditch C Grades.”   http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/law_schools_should_mostly_ditch_c_grades_law_prof_argues

Silverstein notes on his SSRN site that “C marks virtually always denote unsatisfactory work in American graduate education.  Law schools are the primary exception to this convention. It is time we adopted the practice followed by the rest of the academy.” 

Reasons to “ditch” the C’s include:

  • inequity – many law schools ranked in the top tier by U.S. News essentially have eliminated the use of C grades, while policies in fourth-tier schools often encourage or require large numbers of Cs
  • jobs – grading policies which encourage low grades damage students’ placement prospects
  • stress – Cs do psychological injury to law students generally familiar with achieving A’s and B’s

I find Professor Silverstein’s arguments persuasive, but the need to make the arguments saddens me.  Almost seven years ago, Roy Stuckey et. al. urged law schools to stop “sorting” students by a method that is only helpful to prospective employers looking for a simple screening system and instead to provide formative and evaluative assessment of law students and graduates.  This shift would  create a more competent profession and more able learners. Such an assessment structure would eliminate the issues which Silverstein’s C’s raise.  (You either become increasingly competent to practice and engage with the law or you need to re-assess your life goals!)  Despite this reasoned plea, the media and the academy is still stuck in a mindset that focuses on sorting methods and “grade inflation” rather than on better preparation and assessment of law students to serve clients and society.

Thankfully, my final grading this semester includes such assessment methods: clinical performance evaluations, student reflections and hybrid field supervisor evaluation and input.   In end of semester meetings, after 14 weeks of clinical pedagogy, this group of students was able to honestly evaluate strengths, abilities not yet acquired and ways to obtain necessary  skills and abilities either  in the next year of law school (second years) or in the early years of practice/pro-bono/business work (third years).  And I was able to review a series of simulations, real work product, classroom activities and a feedback loop to determine my grades. The students were able to acknowledge the psychologoical and personality issues which obstructed their growth and identify practice situations well-suited or ill-suited for them.   These students have learned to be more reflective, to “own” their education and career formation, and to care deeply about their role in improving justice and the profession. Justice Powell and Nina Totenberg would be proud of them …..and so am I.

What do you think about Silverstein’s arguments and about your effective assessment methods?

2 Responses

  1. The argument over grades — whatever the letter of the alphabet we are currently focused on — is mostly about external reporting to the market. Assessment, on the other hand, is an internal process designed to improve student learning. The core tension one finds in assessment is this: if we focus on student learning, we want to find, report, and address areas that can be improved. If we focus on reporting, we want to find and report on those qualities that will give our students an edge in the marketplace. Authentic assessment for student learning is very difficult if we fear the results will be to place our students (and therefore our institutions and our careers) at a competitive disadvantage. It doesn’t matter whether our assessment method is grades (with sufficient information to permit us and students to know what those grades actually mean in terms of student learning) or review of actual representation of clients. If we use the assessment as a way to market our students or ourselves, we will always be tempted to conclude that everyone is above average.

    • I agree! It’s not about the nature of what one assesses — actual practice or content knowledge or skill acquisition. I also find it challenging but not impossible to compartmentalize growth in skill development, theory acquisition, and professional identity formation since demonstration of competencies generally occurs in a more integrated manner.

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