Law Schools are Better Prepared than Anticipated for the Proposed ABA Standards 302-305

Volume 43 Issue 2

By

About the Author

Brenda Gibson is an assistant profesor and director of legal writing at North Carolina Central University School of Law in Durham. Professor Gibson received her bachelor of arts in political science from and her juris doctor cum laude from NCCU School of Law.   She was previously employed at the North Carolina Court of Appeals as a staff attorney in the Office of Staff Counsel and law clerk to Judge Clifton E. Johnson (deceased) and Judge (now Justice) Patricia Timmons-Goodson.  Professor Gibson’s professional memberships include the N.C. State Bar, N.C. Bar Association, Tenth Judicial District Bar Association, and the Legal Writing Institute (LWI).  She currently chairs the LWI’s plagiarism committee. Professor Gibson is married to Adolph Simmons, Jr., and they have two sons, Adolph Drayton and Andrew Gabriel.

This essay was born during the summer of 2011 as I struggled to fit this very fascinating information into an article that I was writing. The essay discusses a subject that many have ruminated about and written on; it is a subject that I became interested in after attending the 2010 Charlotte School of Law’s Outcomes Conference – the maelstrom in the academy, better known as proposed Standards 302-305.[1]  Ever the optimist, this essay is written from the viewpoint that many law schools are better positioned for the proposed standards than most people think. Indeed, this essay is written to relieve some of the angst felt by many professors, program directors like myself, and institutional administrators when they think about implementing the proposed Standards.

A.     Summary of the Proposed Standards

The proposed Standards were summarized by Steven C. Bahls, subcommittee chair, in a manuscript from the Charlotte School of Law’s Outcomes Conference:[2]

1. Standard 302 provides that law schools identify desired learning outcomes. It provides substantial flexibility for law schools, consistent with each law school’s mission.

2. Standard 303 provides that law schools offer a curriculum that is designed to produce graduates that have attained the identified learning outcomes. The proposed standard, with a few exceptions (e.g., a required course in professional responsibility), leaves it to each law school to determine what that curriculum will be.

3. Standard 304 provides that law schools apply a variety of formative and summative assessment methods across the curriculum to provide meaningful feedback to students. The determination of how to assess learning outcomes is left to the law schools. Schools are not required to measure the level of achievement of each student in each learning outcome.

4. Standard 305 provides that law schools review the pedagogical effectiveness of their curriculum and improve their curriculum with the goal that all students are likely to achieve proficiency in the identified learning outcomes.

In a nutshell, these proposed changes call for a movement away from “inputs measurements (such as numbers of books, faculty student ratios, etc.) to outcomes assessment,”[3] shifting the focus in legal education from teaching to learning.[4]  The new standards will require that law schools know and articulate their goals and have in place some mechanism for measuring/assessing their effectiveness in achieving those goals.  

I submit, however, that this is nothing new!  Assessment has been around for quite some time.[5]  Assessment is defined as “the gathering of data, usually quantitative in nature and based on testing, that provides the information for evaluation to be made.”[6]  A circuitous process, assessment involves setting goals, gathering evidence to determine if the goals are being met, interpreting the evidence, and making changes to the goals as the evidence shows is necessary.[7] 

B.      Summary of the Assessment Process Under the Proposed Standards

To comply with the proposed Standards, institutions must set up the framework for assessment. First, an institution must construct its mission statement (for a department, its program goals), which summarizes its “core values.”[8]  It must then define its “measurable student learning outcomes” (SLOs).[9] In his article, Gregory Munro defines student outcomes as “the stated abilities, knowledge base, skills, personal attributes, and perspectives on the role of law and lawyers in society that the school desires the students to exhibit on graduation.”[10] Significantly, broader institutional SLOs, which are oftentimes included in the larger institutional strategic plan (as opposed to those narrower SLOs included on a course syllabus), however, are probably better referred to as “institutional outcomes.”  To be effective under the proposed Standards, these “institutional outcomes,” already drafted as a part of an institution’s strategic plan, will perhaps need to be fleshed out a bit more to be made more “measureable.”[11]  Tomes of literature have been written on creating measureable outcomes.[12]  Suffice it to say, that this is a time-consuming, but necessary, part of the process. Without a proper definition of what is being measured, a proper mechanism cannot be measured.

The next step requires that the success in achieving those goals or SLOs be measured. Presently, most law schools make this determination through their self-studies in preparation for site visits and strategic planning.[13]  Under the new proposed Standards, additional interim mechanisms will need to be employed.[14] Tools such as rubrics, curriculum mapping,[15] focus groups, and surveys, to name a few, have been mentioned in many of the articles discussing assessment.[16] 

C.  North Carolina Central University School of Law (NCCU) –  A Position of Readiness

NCCU School of Law was “[f]ounded in 1939, to provide an opportunity for a legal education to African-Americans.”[17]  Today, “the . . . provides this opportunity to a more diverse student body than any other in the nation, as it pertains to race and gender.”[18] The law school’s mission is “to provide a challenging and broad-based educational program designed to stimulate intellectual inquiry of the highest order, and to foster in each student a deep sense of professional responsibility and personal integrity so as to produce competent and socially responsible members of the legal profession.”[19]  As noted on the law school’s webpage, “This environment of diversity better prepares our students to effect positive change in the broader society.”[20] 

NCCU School of Law has for many years prided itself on producing “practice ready” attorneys, even before the ABA proposed its new standards. It has been necessary for its survival as a Historically Black College or University (HBCU)[21] and as a lower-tier law school.[22]  Many like NCCU have also long-prided themselves on doing the same--perhaps for similar or maybe different reasons.

For a school like NCCU, which has a long-standing and clearly articulated mission to engender diversity and produce “practice-ready” attorneys, the shift in the academic paradigm will not be great. Indeed, the school’s mission statement is buttressed by its long-range strategic plan, which has “objectives,” “goals,” or “outcomes”—all acceptable language in the area of assessment[23]-- that track the mission. Further, during the last Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' accreditation, each professor was instructed to include SLOs on course syllabi. Additionally, each professor teaching a first-year substantive course or a four-credit, upper level course is required, or strongly encouraged, to administer both mid-term and final examinations, i.e., formative and summative assessment. In fact, our first-year legal writing faculty utilizes numerous assessments— from the grammar diagnostics given during the first week of class, to the interim assessments that are graded during the semester, leading up to the final memo.[24]   Moreover, many other professors are taking advantage of technology in the classroom, using clickers or Westlaw’s polling function, to engage in more informal methods of formative assessment. Finally, the long-range planning committee, a standing committee at the law school, meets periodically to determine if the school’s stated goals have been met or need to be revised.

D. Conclusion

Without a doubt there is still some heavy lifting to be done at NCCU and other law schools, alike. The informal process of assessing student and institutional outcomes used in the past will need to be formalized under the proposed Standards. Most notably, the goals set forth in the institution’s long-range strategic plan will need to be reviewed to ensure their measurability. Finally, the institutions must take the final step of setting up regular, interim measurement (or collecting of evidence) to determine if “institutional and student objectives” are being met. I posit, however, that with collaboration between faculty, the bar, and administrators, the heavy lifting need not be overwhelming. Indeed, we are better positioned for change than many (including ourselves) think. In the words of the old British adage, “Keep calm and carry on.” 

 

[1] “The proposed changes to Chapter Three are being spearheaded by the Student Learning Outcomes Committee, a sub-committee of the ABA‘s Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar‘s Standards Review Committee.”  Susan Hanley Duncan, The New Accreditation Standards are Coming to a Law School Near You—What You Need to Know About Learning Outcomes & Assessment, 16 J. Legal Writing Inst. 606, 608 (2010). As of the printing of Duncan’s article, the Student Learning Outcomes sub-committee had developed five drafts of the proposed changes to Chapter Three, based upon input from various sources (a special sub-committee on outcome measure’s report and many other interested parties).

[2] Steven C. Bahls, Assessment and Student Outcomes – Implications of Proposed ABA Standards on Student Learning Outcomes (May 27, 2010) (unpublished manuscript) (on file with author).

[3] David Thomson, Outcomes & Assessment: A Golden Opportunity for LRW Professors, The Second Draft, 4 (2010).

[4] Duncan, supra note 1, at 609.

[5] Sandy Cobb, History of Assessment Practices in the United States 1, 1 (Oct. 8, 2004) (unpublished manuscript), http://learn.midsouthcc.edu/LearningObjects/facDev/history_of_assessment.pdf (“Assessment practices began to spring up in the early 1900's, and the government was a predominant driver.”).

[6] Craig S. Shwery, Reading, Writing, and Classroom Rubrics: Ways to Motivate Quality Learning, in Rubrics: A Handbook for Construction and Use 95 (Germaine L. Taggart et al. eds., 1998) (citing J.E. Bertrand, Student Assessment and Evaluation, in Assessment and Evaluation in Whole Language Programs 19-35 (B. Harp ed., 1993).  

[7] Victoria L. VanZandt, Creating Assessment Plans for Introductory Legal Research and Writing Courses, 16 J. Legal Writing Inst. 319-20 (2010).

[8]Duncan, supra note 1, at 612;  Thomson, supra note 3; Gregory S. Munro, How Do We Know if We Are Achieving Our Goals?: Strategies for Assessing the Outcome of Curricular Innovation, 1 J. Ass'n Legal Writing Directors 229, 230 ( 2002) .

[9] Thomson, supra note 3; Munro, supra note 8.

[10] Munro, supra note 8, at 232.

[11] Duncan, supra  note 1, at 614. Assessment requires the use of some precise and sometimes formulaic terminology.

[12] Id. (noting that constructing “effective” outcomes can be difficult and referring the reader to Bloom‘s Taxonomy of Educational-Objectives-Cognitive Domain and to Linda Suskie’s book, Assessing Student Learning, in which she lists several helpful tips).

[13] Id. at 628.

[14]See id. at 622-27 (discussing the methodology of measuring student, program, and institutional outcomes and goals).

[15]“Curriculum mapping is a process of identifying where the intended learning outcomes fit within the curriculum.” at  619.

[16] See id. at 617-20; 623-24 ; VanZandt, supra note 7, at 342-47.

[17] NCCU School of Law, http://www.nccu.edu/academics/sc/law (last visited Aug. 13, 2011).

[18] Id.

[19] NCCU School of Law, http://web.nccu.edu/law/about/mission.html (last visited Aug. 13, 2011).

[20] Id.

[21] HBCUs are historically funded at a lower level in comparison to their Historically White counterparts. See  Marybeth Gasman, Comprehensive Funding Approaches for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (2010), http://www.gse.upenn.edu/pdf/gasman/FundingApproachesHBCUs.pdf.

[22] As a lower-tiered law school, NCCU relies on its reputation for affordability, having a good bar passage rate, and producing “practice-ready” attorneys, instead of the U.S. News & World Report’s rankings.

[23] VanZandt, supra note 7, at  323. 

[24] All legal writing courses/seminars at NCCU are designed to include a minimum of three writing assignments, with at least one opportunity for a re-write.

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Editor's Note: The Standards numbers cited in this article are current as of the Standard Review Committee's November 2011 meeting. They are subject to change. Please refer to the Standards Review Committee page for updates to the Comprehensive Review process.

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