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Assessments: The New Standard at Cooley and Perhaps All Law Schools

 By: Dalton Carty
        Staff Writer, Lansing

The New Year brings resolutions of all sorts. Commitments to change diet, mindsets, fitness, and friends are typical for most individuals. Yet, augmentations also occur for institutions. These may include modifications in procedure, personnel, and places of business. In January 2014, Thomas Cooley Law School implemented a change that may have shocked some people. Cooley’s leadership decided it was time to require multiple term assessments for all students. The decision affected students on all Cooley campuses and was conveyed to many on the first day of class leaving some to wonder why they were needed. This article attempts to address that question.

In a February 2014 interview, Dean of Faculty Charles Cercone and Dean of Planning, Assessment, and Accreditation Laura LeDuc said Cooley had been contending with increased low bar pass rates and diminished student GPA’s for some time. The assessments were initiated to combat those concerns with the hope that students who practice more will ultimately do better not only on the bar exam and in law school, but also as lawyers. They stated this was the purpose of the assessments and hoped all students understood the assessments were to help them achieve their goals.

Dean Cercone said various ways of implementing the assessments were considered. These included instituting them incrementally or allowing upper classmen to complete them first before making them a requirement for the entire student body. Yet, he did not feel those ideas conducive to the goal of the initiative. He posited, “If the aim of the assessments is to help students perform better, why should they be limited to some when all could benefit?” Thus, the assessments are seen as a means for all students to improve academically and professionally.     

The implementation of assessments was contemplated long before it was executed. With over a year of planning, external research by firms like Kaplan, and data from schools throughout the nation, Cooley completed an extensive investigation into the best practices for increasing student performance. Although administrators and faculty knew about the implementation for some time, their form and content were debated and eventually decided in frequent meetings with Cooley’s president and faculty using the compiled data. Dean Cercone made the decision to implement them in December 2013 when Cooley’s bar pass rate was low. Thus, professor input and external research helped influenced the implementation as well as the structure of the assessments.  

However, Cooley is not the only law school implementing multiple term assessments. Dean LeDuc explained Cooley’s regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, is changing its rules to stipulate all schools use assessments to gauge student performance. She also said the American Bar Association, another Cooley accreditor, is being pressured by the U. S. Department of Education to initiate assessments for all law schools or risk losing its accrediting powers. Therefore, she said, “Cooley has always been at the forefront of applying new techniques to help our students succeed and this [implementation of assessments] is just another way of doing that because ultimately it will be the standard at every law school.” Thus, multiple term assessments may soon become the norm at all law schools because officials realize their importance and are demanding the trend be employed.

To support this contention, Deans Cercone and LeDuc provided a February 2014 National Jurist article entitled “How Schools Help Students Pass the Bar?” It discussed the innovative approaches many law schools are employing to increase bar pass rates. For example, the University of La Verne in Ontario, California lost its ABA accreditation in 2011 due to low bar pass rates. It then hired a specialist who had helped other schools like Nova Southeastern Shepard Broad Law Center improve bar pass rates. The specialist, Assistant Dean for the Center of Academic and Bar Readiness Jendayi Saada, said student engagement is pivotal to passing the bar. La Verne’s program focuses on one-one counseling, special courses, and regular testing. LaVerne’s bar pass rate has increased by 113% since 2010. Thus, many law schools are employing multiple term assessments to help students succeed.    

Dean Cercone also said, although multiple term assessments are a new tactic for law schools, it is a strategy aimed at better education. Historically, law school was enduring fifteen weeks of course material with an exam at the end. Students rarely discussed comprehension problems with professors. Some professors delved vernacular topics during lecture and never covered course material, but still held students responsible for everything in the syllabus. Consequently, students did not retrieve blue books once grades were posted because they were thankful for having survived. Cercone said, “This made for poor education as students only got what they needed to pass and failed to retain much afterwards.” The assessments should help to curtail this tendency because they force students to think about and apply the material before the exam. Thus, by doing the assessments, students better understand lessons, discern what they don’t know, acquire feedback from professors, and obtain vital reinforcement to prepare for finals.

At Cooley, there are three required assessments for every class. One must be graded. It is usually the midterm. The other two are not graded. One of the ungraded assessments must be an essay with feedback from the professor. Although the form and content of the assessments were discussed by faculty and administrators before their implementation, professors currently select the form of the assessments (multiple choice, essay, or a combination of both) with content pertaining to course material. If a student fails to complete any of the required assessments, the professor has discretion over how the situation will be handled. Thus, students must talk to professors if they are unable to complete an assessment to identify an appropriate solution.

Although the assessments are not kept, a professor may complete a faculty referral form to have a student seen by Cercone if the student fails or does very poorly on one or multiple assessments. In that meeting, Dean Cercone would suggest, but not require, the student use some of Cooley’s resources like the Academic Resource Center to advance academically. Although this decision is left to the discretion of the student, the alternative is to be placed on academic probation and eventually dismissed. Thus, students may not perform well on the assessments, but have access to people and tools to help them progress.  

Asked if they think the assessments will be successful Cercone said, “This is something new. However, the research says this is how other schools improved student performance. If they can do it, so can we.” To measure the success of the assessments, Dean Cercone said he intends to evaluate them at the end of each term using feedback from students, faculty, and academic support staff. Presumably, Cooley’s bar pass rate and student GPA’s will also weigh assessment success. If unsuccessful, Dean Cercone said the assessments may be modified, but he did not envision Cooley reverting to a system without multiple term assessments. Thus, the assessments may be changed depending on their effectiveness, but will never vanish from Cooley’s curriculum.    

To be competent lawyers, law students must know, apply, and analyze the law in comparison to established facts. Multiple term assessments allow students greater practice doing that. Thus, the saying practice makes perfect should be remembered when doing the assessments because they are requirements that will never disappear and one improves academically and professionally by engaging them.