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School of Law Grading Policy Change

Updated April 13, 2020

Dear WNE School of Law community, 

The WNE law faculty adopted several measures relating to Spring 2020 grading that I want to share with you today. As you know, the faculty has been considering the question of grading since mid-March. At the front of our minds are matters of compassion, fairness, integrity, and the student-centeredness that characterizes the WNE law community at all times. I know this is a long message; I ask you to read all of it carefully, and consult the Frequently Asked Questions.

Over spring break, the faculty solicited feedback from students that indicated a high level of interest in modifying the grading structure for Spring 2020, with some students advocating for a pass/fail grading system and others advocating for keeping some system of letter grades in place. The faculty initially decided, on March 23, to lift the mandatory grade distribution and the mandatory mean and median for courses in which those parameters are normally used, and to modify academic dismissal standards for the semester, but to keep letter grades in place.

A lot has happened since March 23, as the COVID-19 pandemic has spread and led to various pressures on the health care system, a variety of types of serious financial stress, concerns over personal and family safety, the closure of K-12 schools, and countless other impacts. We have heard from many law students in emails, phone calls, video meetings, and the three open forums that we have held thus far about how COVID-19 is impacting individual lives of members of our community. In light of those changes, the faculty convened for over six hours on Friday and Sunday to revisit the question of grading and how best to balance the competing priorities before us. In this conversation, we considered many factors, including the fundamental question of integrity and fairness in evaluating and grading student work; voluminous and thoughtful student feedback; obstacles created and/or exacerbated by the transition to remote learning as a result of the COVID-19 emergency; the widely varying life and work circumstances under which students are completing the end of the semester; the uncertainties surrounding the further spread of COVID-19 and the impact that may have directly and indirectly on the law school community in the coming weeks; the implications of any grading system for academic success, bar success, and career planning; the University’s decision to offer an optional Credit/No Credit grading system for undergraduates for Spring 2020; and the decisions (and the reasoning behind the decisions) of other law schools.

We are especially grateful that so many students took the time to share their opinions and suggestions on the very difficult question of equitably grading student performance in the midst of an unprecedented crisis that has necessitated dramatic and unexpected changes (the full extent of which may not yet be fully apparent) in our methods of teaching and learning, students’ learning and living environments and circumstances, and the means by which we assess student performance. We appreciate your patience as we took this time to consider the best course of action for the law school.

For the Spring 2020 semester, the law school will be moving to a mandatory Credit/No Credit grading system. This will apply to all coursework at the School of Law, and applies to all students (J.D., LL.M, and Master’s students). The Frequently Asked Questions provide detail on what this system entails.

The decision to move to a mandatory Credit/No Credit system was reached only after lengthy and serious deliberation. Faculty members shared concerns that a grading system designed to measure academic performance would, in the midst of a pandemic, instead measure the differential impact of the crisis itself (who is sick, who is serving as a caregiver, who has lost friends or family members, who has access to quiet study space, who has access to consistent technology, who is an essential worker outside of being a student, who is struggling with other pressures). In short, the current upheaval raised serious doubts about whether the reasonably objective distinctions that letter grades reflect would be valid or reliable measures of students’ academic merit, or be fairly comparable to other semesters’ grades represented in GPAs and class ranks.

We gave serious consideration to making Credit/No Credit grading optional after students learned their grades in a course, so that students for whom higher grades would improve academic standing, or help in other ways, would be able to use grades to this end. The faculty concluded that an optional Credit/No Credit system does not address (and, in fact, likely exacerbates) concerns about the validity, reliability, and comparability of Spring 2020 letter grades in measuring students’ academic merit. Further, an optional system would not remove and may instead increase pressure on those students most severely impacted by the COVID-19 turmoil to nonetheless prioritize their studies in the face of extraordinary, daunting personal circumstances and responsibilities. In the end, we were persuaded that mandatory Credit/No Credit is a more equitable means of evaluating Spring 2020 performance.

This grading policy is by no means a perfect solution to the difficult problems that the COVID-19 turmoil poses with regard to evaluating student work. Every law school in the country has been struggling with the reality that there is no perfect solution, as any alternative grading system that we might have adopted would also have produced burdens and disadvantages. Of note, mandatory Credit/No Credit (or mandatory Pass/Fail) is, at this point, the most common grading protocol at law schools across the nation for this semester.

I understand there will be students who are extremely disappointed at not having the option to retain grades for the Spring 2020 semester. Every member of the faculty expressed a strong willingness to write letters of recommendation and provide other means of evaluative support on students’ behalf, and each faculty member has the option of designating multiple CALI awards for each class to recognize outstanding projects, papers, and exams. We understand, too, that students currently not in good academic standing will be prevented from raising their GPAs this semester, though the faculty took care to ensure those students would not be penalized. Although the faculty agreed initially that there would be no academic dismissals after the spring 2020 semester, a recent memo from the ABA indicated that would not constitute compliance with ABA Standards. Therefore, we make the following revision: if a student had a GPA below 2.300 at the end of the Fall 2019 semester and receives one or more no credit (“NC”) designations in Spring 2020, the Honor Code and Student Petitions Committee will review that student’s individual case upon the student notifying the committee that they would like to continue to matriculate. Please see the FAQ for additional information.    

From participating in the extensive faculty discussion over these questions, I can share that this was an extraordinary and extraordinarily difficult decision. We were and are motivated by principles of equity, integrity, student-centeredness, and compassion.

I am proud of the community values that motivate us each and every day. I want you to know that the faculty, staff, and administration of the law school stand behind you and with you as we continue to navigate this pandemic.

Dean Sudha Setty