College looks to revise Winter Study grading

This is the second installment in a two-part series on Winter Study grading and the Law School Admission Council (LSAC). The first part examined the history of coursework evaluation and how an amended LSAC policy affects the term; this part will focus on the College’s response to the policy change.

As a result of the updated LSAC policy of converting Winter Study grades to the alphabetical scale and recalculating students’ grade point averages (GPAs), the Committee on Educational Affairs (CEA) has been discussing the Winter Study grading system, which operates on a three-pass system. In March, the committee will propose a motion to abolish the high pass, leaving the pass, perfunctory pass and fail as grading options.

“LSAC was unwilling to negotiate with us about how the policy was going to be enforced or when it was going to be applied, so we felt that this was putting our students at a real disadvantage,” Chair of the CEA and Professor of Anthropology David Edwards said. “This conversion of high pass to A, pass to B and perfunctory pass to C is not only unfair and disadvantageous to our students, but it is also contrary to the spirit of Winter Study.”

“LSAC’s rules state that they will honor a [pass or fail] grade (and not include it in their calculation of GPA) as long as there are only two levels of passing grade,” Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom said.

“Once you go beyond a two-pass system, it kicks in this transition to a traditional grading scheme,” Registrar Barbara Casey said. “I confirmed with [LSAC] that if we were to eliminate the high pass and keep the pass and perfunctory pass …  they would not include those grades in the GPA.”

Although LSAC’s grade conversion policy spurred the discussion to get rid of the high pass, there is consensus that the high pass itself is contrary to the spirit of academic exploration central to Winter Study.

“While the LSAC ruling initiated the conversation about getting rid of the high pass, the general conversation has been more about, does it make sense for Winter Study?” Casey said. “It really got people thinking, does it make sense to have a high pass?”

“Without knowing just when and why high pass and perfunctory pass were added to the [Winter Study] grading options, those changes strike me as being antithetical to the spirit and hopes that led to the creation of Winter Study,” John Chandler, president of the College from 1973 to 1985 and chair of the committee that originally proposed Winter Study, said.

“I imagine that the conversation [about introducing the high pass] centered around giving Winter Study a bit more academic heft,” Edwards said. “But I don’t think that sufficiently warrants maintaining it when significant number of students are being really disadvantaged by this. The way in which high passes are handed out is very inconsistent. The kinds of classes themselves are different and, maybe even more fundamentally, we don’t include Winter Study grades in our GPAs. We consider it more like the physical education requirement, in essence. It’s not something that we weight in the academic standing of the student, except insofar as the student has to pass it.”

While there has been discussion about abolishing the high pass, the perfunctory pass will likely remain a fixture of Winter Study. “The perfunctory pass is useful at times,” Casey said. “It really means a student has tried pretty hard to almost fail the course. And sometimes I think students get it as a gift. The repercussions for failing a Winter Study course are fairly significant in that you need to make it up with a regular course.”

“It’s helpful for the Committee on Academic Standing to have the perfunctory pass,” CEA member Jeffrey Rubel ’17 said. “If a student is failing their semester courses and gets a perfunctory pass during Winter Study, the committee can see that the student is struggling.”

After the CEA introduces the motion to abolish the high pass, it will then go up for a vote at a faculty meeting. Even if this measure were implemented for the 2017-2018 academic year, all students who have been at the College since 1995, the year the College introduced the three-pass system for Winter Study, will remain affected by the LSAC policy’s implications if they choose to apply to law school.

“My understanding is that LSAC will not make retrospective changes to our students’ GPA calculation even after any change we might make to our Winter Study grading system,” Sandstrom said. “Instead, they will only apply that change to their calculation of GPA moving forward.”

It seems as though students applying to law school from the College will be bound by the updated LSAC policy. Due to the College’s own grade change policy, it would not retroactively switch to a two-pass system.

“[The possibility of changing grades retroactively] did come up, but it would be really revolutionary to do it,” Casey said. “It would come up against a lot of policy that’s in place. The College gives faculty full authority over authorizing grades, and to make a decision that goes completely against that – I don’t think it’s possible.”

Edwards agreed with Casey’s assessment. “I’m really sympathetic to the students who are in this situation. I think it’s totally unfair and I think LSAC shouldn’t do this,” Edwards said. “But to try in a consistent and fair way to retroactively change all those grades … I just don’t know how you’d do it.

Although LSAC will recalculate students’ GPAs, law schools will still receive students’ official transcripts, with their original GPAs, from the College.

“LSAC conversion policies are periodically reviewed by law school staff. They are fully disclosed to the candidates as well as the law schools receiving our law school reports,” Wendy Margolis, LSAC director of communications, publishing and creative services, said in an email to the Record. “In addition, copies of transcripts accompany reports, enabling admission professionals to study the transcripts and exercise their own judgment. Undergraduate institutions and individuals are free to communicate directly with law school admission personnel about special aspects of candidates’ grades and transcripts.”

“The law schools will get the underlying transcript, so they will see the GPA without Winter Study calculations,” Michelle Shaw ’95, associate director of the Career Center and pre-law advisor, said. “I know the Registrar has also worked to prepare a formal response to the LSAC objecting to [the policy], and is making available to any applicant a letter from their office explaining the point of Winter Study and saying this is an unfair policy.”