Today is March 15, 2020, and, by now, most law schools have either announced a transition to fully online teaching or set a date when they will begin doing so. Although many schools have said that this situation is temporary and will last for no more than a few weeks, my personal prediction is that most schools will not resume face-to-face teaching this semester. This post invites faculty and administrators to think now about the consequences for assessment during this challenging time.
Although my usual interest is in programmatic assessment, here I am writing specifically about course-based assessment. On the one hand, the next six seeks or so may be an opportunity for faculty to provide more formative assessments to students, such as low-stakes quizzes, essays, and discussion posts. Such activities are a way to keep students engaged with material.
However, there is a looming assessment issue that will require some attention sooner rather than later: how to engage in the typical end-of-semester summative assessments, such as final exams and, for skills classes, final activities. The questions that a law school must answer are several and complex:
- How will we administer high-stakes final exams if our school is not physically open?
- How will we ensure exam integrity? In normal circumstances, students will typically take such exams in secure environments with proctors and other measures designed to counter cheating.
- Can our exam technology support question types other than essay, such as multiple choice?
- Will faculty need to adapt exams to be delivered online or through means that rely on an honor system to guard against cheating? Are closed book exams practical or warranted in this situation?
- What training will be needed for students and faculty if a new online platform is used, such as a locked down browser-based exam system like Respondus?
- Should we allow students to postpone exams or take a pass/fail option if they did not have access to online classes because they did not have Internet access at home?
- For faculty used to grading with paper essays, how will they adapt to grading online through PDFs?
- How will faculty submit grades? Should we extend deadlines for submission? How will this affect degree conferral and bar certification?
- Should we relax a mandatory grade curve?
- Should we suspend class ranking for the semester?
- How will we address students who believe their grades were adversely impacted by anxiety, quarantine, or displacement?
- Should we relax a scholarship retention policy that is based on meeting a minimum GPA? If so, how will we deal with the financial ramifications of that decision?
- Should we make modifications to other processes (e.g., law review selection) that involve selection based, at least in part, on GPA?
- What should we tell employers who recruit through the competitive on-campus interview process?
- To what an extent should these questions be decided by an individual faculty member, the faculty at-large, or the administration?
I wish I had easy, simple answers to these difficult questions. What I can offer, though, is a framework to think through the issues. First, it is important to recognize that there is not a perfect solution to many of the questions. No matter what is decided, there will be unhappy students or faculty who complain that the decision is unfair. Communications to students should reflect that the law school gave consideration to various options and that there is not a perfect solution given the circumstances. Second, a lot of the issues listed above revolve around how we sort students (e.g., law review selection, class rank, OCI, and scholarship retention). The law school should decide the extent to which this sorting is important. The answer is likely to vary school-by-school. Third, related to the second question, what is the culture of the school? Does it favor faculty governance or deference to the administration? Is there a culture of self-policing by students for honor code compliance? Fourth, what is the capability of the faculty, administration, and technology at the law school to deviate from existing practices?
Thinking about this framework first can help resolve some of the specific questions later. It ensures some degree of consistency in approach between, for example, exam administration and grading. The framework also takes into account the unique situation and culture of each school.
I have seen some Twitter traffic in the last few days suggesting that law schools should just end the semester now and give all students a mark of “pass” for their courses. I hope this does not occur. As an initial matter, I doubt the ABA or other regulators would approve of this practice. More importantly, there are solutions—albeit imperfect ones—to the challenges we are facing. Giving up the semester should be a last resort. We owe it to our students to try to give them a quality experience. This includes assessing them in as fair a manner as practicable.
Once we have tackled all of these issues, we will have to confront a new challenge: the bar exam. If COVID-19 is still prevalent in July, will the bar exam go forward? What happens if it does not? I will leave those questions for another day.