Nolan Hendricks, a second year law student at Georgia State University, has been preparing for his finals for an entire semester. In law school, Hendricks said final grades are determined solely on one exam score, leaving him with only one shot to earn the grade he needs to rank against his peers.
As the law school semester comes to an end, law school students are studying at home and taking final exams off campus with varying access to resources because of COVID-19.
“The best people won’t get the jobs. Those who worked the hardest won’t do the best,” Hendricks said. “That kind of strikes me as unfair and inequitable.”
The COVID-19 outbreak sent most students away from campuses as colleges and universities across the nation, including all public Georgia colleges, transitioned to online classes. Many American Bar Association-approved law schools in the U.S. have adopted either a mandatory or optional pass/fail grading system. The University of Georgia and GSU law schools have not.
Due to the uncertainty of the situation and the varying accessibility to resources among students, Hendricks signed a petition to encourage the University System of Georgia to implement a pass/fail grading scale for its law students.
The university system has denied students’ repeated requests for a pass/fail option.
USG is made up of 26 public universities across Georgia and is overseen by the Board of Regents. The board is composed of 19 appointed members. USG has authority over grading at USG institutions and would have to approve a move to pass/fail. Both UGA and GSU have adopted higher grading curves, but some students say that’s not enough.
A collection of law students from UGA and GSU sent a letter to the Board of Regents in March. UGA students have been petitioning since UGA announced class would move online in March. At UGA’s School of Law, the last day of spring semester classes was April 21, and the exam period runs from April 28 to May 13. GSU’s law school had its last day of classes on April 27, and its exam period runs from April 30 to May 13.
Ross Harris, a third year law student at UGA, helped with the USG petition. Harris said the pass/fail system is essential because the logic behind the typical law school grading system “totally falls apart” when students are learning at home with varying access to resources.
Harris said the typical system causes students to compete with one another for the top class rank, which is based on cumulative GPA. Harris said students with a higher rank often receive opportunities, such as job offers, that lower-ranked peers may not receive.
“Using a curve to determine someone’s academic performance right now does not make sense,” Harris said. “There is not a reasonable basis for doing that.”
USG decided to keep its current grading system in place, according to a March 30 email from UGA spokesperson Greg Trevor.
“The USG has made the decision to maintain the current grading structure for all system classes this semester, and we support that decision,” Trevor said in an April 20 email to The Red & Black.
USG’s statement acknowledged that other institutions across the country transitioned to a pass/fail system, but said it would continue with current grading systems through the end of the semester to “allow faculty to assess the performance of students in the same manner they always have.”
“In times of adversity, we should reach higher, not lower,” the USG statement said. “Maintaining high academic standards is critical to the success of USG students now and in the future.”
Although USG has rejected students’ requests for a pass/fail system, many students are still appealing. USG Students 4 Grade Reform, a group of students from multiple USG schools, created an online form for USG students, faculty and staff to voice their opinions on the opt-in pass/fail system.
Ciera Thomas, a UGA Student Government Association senator who helped organize this group, said this state-wide group is “now working with students from every BOR institution across the state.” The group is made up of mostly undergraduate students and includes some law school students.
While USG has refused to adopt a pass/fail system, UGA and GSU law schools have made a change to their grading systems.
The UGA Student Bar Association sent a letter to School of Law Dean Peter Rutledge encouraging a pass/fail system for all first-year and upperclassman courses, "doctrinal, writing, or otherwise."
“Following extensive input reflecting a diverse array of viewpoints, the School of Law faculty made an upward adjustment to its grading curve for this term,” Trevor said in an email.
The email did not detail the specifics of the curve, but adjusting a curve upwards means the average grade will be higher on the curve than it would be normally.
GSU’s law school also modified its curve. In an email to GSU law students, the three law school deans wrote the GSU faculty would have preferred to move to pass/fail, although they said it was not an option because of USG’s authority over such major grade system changes.
UGA and GSU law professors must ensure that their class GPA average is between 3.7 and 3.9, according to the email. Professors are required to ensure their students’ grades fall in between this range.
At UGA School of Law, classes with 20 or fewer students and all graduate students are not subject to the otherwise mandatory curve, but faculty grading such students are encouraged to consider the revised GPA range.
To students such as Hendricks, however, this inflated curve is not enough. Hendricks said while it would boost students’ GPAs, it would not make a difference to class ranks, which Hendricks said is most important.
“It’s better than the old system, but everyone is still competing for grades and that is just an inappropriate thing to happen during a global pandemic,” Harris said.
Hendricks complimented GSU’s faculty and staff for their management of classes during the pandemic, even though the law school did not implement a pass/fail system. He said instead the “blame really lies with the Board of Regents,” who Hendricks said need to allow law schools to implement a pass/fail system.
“Without that permission, without an exception for law schools, we cannot go pass/fail. It’s not an option for us,” Hendricks said. “No matter how wonderful our staff and faculty are, without the Board of Regents’ greenlight, their hands are tied.
Correction: A previous version of this story linked to an incorrect document instead of the letter to the Board of Regents. Students from both UGA and GSU law schools sent a letter to the board in March petitioning the board to allow the adoption a pass/fail grading system. The UGA Student Bar Association sent a separate letter to the dean of the UGA law school at a different time. The Red & Black regrets this error, and it has since been fixed.