Equitable Grading in Times of Crisis?

Dear BC Law Community,

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), has created a widespread public health crisis, larger than what most of us have seen before in our lifetimes. This is not, however, the first-time members of our community have faced an unprecedented life circumstance. Your classmates deal with issues such as food insecurity, homelessness, chronic physical and mental illness, family tragedies, and much more, on a daily basis. When members of our community face these issues, absent a pandemic, we tell them to suck it up. We tell them the curve is what it is and they just need to find a way to solider through, or we contritely tell them “hey, B’s are still passing,” when we all know full well that in a tight  job market, the arbitrary difference between a B and a B+ can be the difference between employment and unemployment. An overly competitive curve is all well and good when it only effects the have-nots, but when it starts to affect the “haves” as well, then we start paying attention.

To be clear, I mostly agree with the school’s decision to implement a mandatory pass/fail grading policy for the Spring 2020 semester. I say this while recognizing that this decision hurts some of my classmates and that the legitimate concerns they’ve expressed cannot be brushed off as “mere disappointment in comparison to the hardships” of other people. They are not disappointed; they are afraid for their futures, the same as everyone else in the world is.

With that said, I don’t think it’s pragmatic to force people to compete against one another at a time when our main concern needs to be the health (both physical and mental) of ourselves and those we care about. When there is a deadly disease tearing through our world, we don’t need to be skipping meals, loading up on coffee, and pulling all nighters just to get ahead of the curve. On that same note, we probably shouldn’t feel the need to do that on other occasions either. All the reasons the administration gave for going to a mandatory pass/fail system now exist outside of a widespread crisis. The curve inherently disadvantages people who aren’t on the top of the food chain, and it will inherently disadvantage those same people once we are on the other side of this.

I am not suggesting that we throw away the grading and ranking system. There are legitimate pedological concerns that require students be evaluated in a meaningful way. I do question, though, how meaningful our current grading system really is. In my 1L Contracts class, my professor revealed to several of us that thet difference between a B and B+ was a matter of a few points. In a 1L issue spotting exam, the difference between a few points could be something as simple as someone having to use the restroom during the exam and having five less minutes. The truth is, the difference between a B and the above median B+ or coveted A-, in many cases, is not all that significant. It’s very similar to the LSAT in that respect; the difference between a 155 and 160 is a significant amount of correct answers, but the difference between a 160 and 165 is a matter of few questions. It gets to a point where the level of competency in your population is so high, trying to differentiate between them on a steep curve becomes arbitrary. All we do when we try to curve out people who functionally understand the material at the same competency level is create undue pressure.

The medical community has said over the last few weeks that society needs to prepare for a large-scale change. Social-distancing requirements are likely to pop up several times over the next few years, as is increased pressure for people to take more accountability for their own health. A grading system that is more equitable at all times, not just times of crisis, can help the legal community navigate our new reality.


Christina Green is a third-year student at BC Law. She loves to hear from readers: email her at greencs@bc.edu.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s