Law School Assessment Revisited

Gemma Smyth, “Law School Assessment Revisited” (2020) 25:4 Lex Electronica 135.


In response to Covid-19, law faculties across North America quickly moved their curriculum online and attempted to assess performance in one of the most stressful moments in many students’ lives. Clearly, pedagogy was not top of mind for most, yet instructors tried to maintain coherence and integrity alongside compassion. Universities across North America adopted a range of grading methodologies. Some retained numerical grades, some moved to a pass/no pass (pass/fail) model, and others adopted a mix of approaches. Ostensibly the move to a pass/no pass system was meant to ease burdens on law students and instructors alike. For some schools, this (theoretically) less stressful approach was meant to increase equitable outcomes, avoid the inevitable connotations that would differentiate pass/no pass from grades, and allow for flexibility on the part of both students and professors. In practice, the change to a pass/no pass system generated fascinating reactions from students, the profession and instructors, surfacing long-standing assumptions about the role of grades in legal education. Pass/no pass was interpreted and experienced wildly differently from student to student and from instructor to instructor. It has raised issues that go to the heart of why and what we assess in legal education as well as thorny questions of outcomes, competencies, and the role of law firms in determining law school pedagogy. While the consequences of this change will play out over the next several years, this short commentary offers reflections on the “no numerical grades” experiment and the more existential questions that have followed. What is the current function of grades? Whose interests do they serve? Do they function as proxies for more meaningful assessment? What would holistic assessment practices look like? And what other possibilities exist?