School changing how it gauges student performance

Beginning in the fall, University of Detroit Mercy School of Law will transition to criterion referenced assessment and introduce a new first-year required skills-based course.

The faculty approved these changes after extensive research, discussion and committee work. The program of legal education will remain rigorous and in compliance with American Bar Association standards, officials said.

“Our faculty’s mission-driven and innovative leadership in legal education will be good for our students, the profession and the communities we serve,” stated Dean Jelani Jefferson Exum. “These changes better align our program of legal education with our mission of educating the complete lawyer, emerging trends and best practices in legal education, and our Jesuit and Mercy roots emphasizing academic excellence and attending to the whole student.”

Criterion referenced assessment will replace the grading curve in all Detroit Mercy Law courses.

Students will be evaluated based on objective standards of competency rather than in comparison to their classmates. With this new assessment model, students will still have grades, grade point averages and a class rank.

“The curriculum committee reviewed scholarship on student learning, trends in support of humanizing law school, and developments in assessment, all of which support this change. This change will allow us to continue to provide a rigorous program of legal education while also supporting our work in assessing student achievement of learning outcomes and evaluating our program of legal education,” stated Karen McDonald Henning, associate dean of academic affairs and associate professor of law.

Paul Manning, associate dean of student learning, outcomes and assessment and professor of law, said criterion referenced assessment “fosters a collaborative learning environment, which supports the type of learning and critical thinking that is essential to developing good lawyers.

“Assessing levels of proficiency provides students and professors more meaningful information about student performance, which helps everyone improve student learning,”

Jennifer Rumschlag, associate dean of institutional outcomes and communications, who leads the Career Services Office, said the change “is not intended to inflate grades — that can be done by adjusting a curve.

“The goal is for students to earn grades that more accurately reflect their learning, which we hope will be more helpful to students, professors, and employers.”

The new first-year required skills-based course will help students develop a strong foundation for legal practice by integrating skills, professionalism, and ethics into the first semester of legal studies, according to school officials.

The curriculum committee is developing the four-credit hour course in collaboration with faculty and deans from a wide range of expertise. Topics under consideration, such as professional identity formation, bias, cross-cultural competency and anti-racism training, academic success skills, law practice skills, and career and professionalism skills, include many of the areas of education required by the new ABA 303(c) standard.

“When you use a curve, students at the top figure out what they need to do to get by and students at the bottom lose motivation,” said Sarah Garrison, director of bar preparation. “When you move away from the curve, students get a clearer idea of their strengths and weakness and how they can improve, which is perfectly in line with bar preparation.”

“Criterion referenced assessment prioritizes both student learning and well-being,” stated Ieisha Humphrey, assistant sean of student affairs. “The traditional grading curve deemphasizes growth mindset during law school and does not lead to a healthy culture for the legal profession. It negatively impacts civility, teamwork, and mental health.”

Nicholas Schroeck, association dean of experiential education and associate profess or of law, said legal education “needs to prepare students for practice.

“This course gives us a space to intentionally educate our students on matters we know are important to their success that have traditionally not had a significant place in the curriculum—some of which are now required by the ABA.”

Courtney Griffin, assistant dean of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, said the change “is especially important at Detroit Mercy Law, where a significant portion of our students are first-generation law students with limited exposure to the profession.”


Subscribe to the Legal News!

Full access to public notices, articles, columns, archives, statistics, calendar and more

Day Pass Only $4.95!
One-County $80/year

Three-County & Full Pass also available