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Duke Changes Law School Grading

by Rishi Vasudeva
Duke Chronicle

June 10, 2004

In an attempt to bring its assessment policies more in line with those of its peers, the School of Law will implement a new grading system, raising the median for certain classes from 3.1 to 3.3 grade points and lowering the maximum possible score from 4.5 to 4.3.

The school's Curriculum Committee designed the new scale, effective June 1, in response to feedback from students and potential employers. Duke's previous scale was considered misleading and potentially confusing, said Chris McLaughlin, director of academic advising and a member of the committee. The change, however, is not expected to have a significant impact on students' transcripts, since the new median will only apply to classes of 40 or more students; furthermore, only 5 percent of any class may receive above a 4.0.

"Almost no one was getting 4.4's and 4.5's--it was a rare thing for professors to give only to once-in-a-career, exceptional students," said Theresa Newman, associate dean for academic affairs. "This will only have a marginal impact on students but will affect the misperception among employers that our grading system is too different."

Duke's previous high grade of 4.5 may have generated confusion because many other schools only award a score of 4.3 as equivalent to an A+, making Duke's system seem vastly different in the eyes of employers. Newman also noted that few employers knew a grade of 4.5 was reserved for unusually exceptional students.

At the same time, there was concern that the students' abilities were not accurately represented, as many other schools use higher medians to set grading curves--Stanford Law School, for instance, sets its median at 3.4. Consequently, many feared that Duke students would not be as competitive as job applicants from peer institutions.

"We believe our students are just about the best you can find anywhere at any school," McLauglin said. As a result, he added, the Curriculum Committee looked at alternatives that might represent Duke students' efforts better than the old grading system, including everything from generally established standards to rather unconventional ones.

Many law schools, such as those at Harvard University and the University of Chicago, have scrapped the 4.3 scale entirely. Harvard follows an 8-point system, and the University of Chicago uses a system with points ranging from 157 to 185. After reviewing such alternatives, Duke opted for a more traditional scale.

"We thought it was more helpful to use an established system rather than an alien one," Newman said. "Employers have to make very quick judgments, and grades seem to be very important in that process."

Although grading system changes often raise questions about the potential for grade inflation, administrators said the changes are not significant enough to warrant such concern.

"We essentially fine-tuned our system to reflect what peer schools are already doing," McLauglin said. "We are not leading the pack to simply benefit our students."