My third grader brought her report card home today, and I’m happy to say she’s a straight Optimi student. Well, mostly— she did have Class II, but thankfully no As (meaning absences, naturally.) Now, these grades may not seem terribly informative, but grades are still a work-in-progress. The American educational system has been experimenting with them since the 1780s, and with the number of iterations we’ve gone through, progress hasn’t always been clear. Many of us are currently familiar with As, Bs, and Cs, but they certainly aren’t the last word on how to rate student performance. While there wasn’t actually any Latin on my child’s report card today, those famous letter grades weren’t there either, instead being replaced by a numeral system reminiscent of even earlier grading systems.
Experiments in higher education
The aforementioned Optimi grade comes from the first written account of assigning a grade to students’ test scores, from Yale University in 1785. Prior to these one-word descriptions ranging from “best” to “worst,” students were generally evaluated via personal feedback from their instructors. Students’ rankings in a class were more-often based on their family’s status rather than their academic performance, which was made all the easier by the exclusive nature of higher education. Still, Yale launched a number of grading experiments, particularly when it came to exams. One that will feel more familiar today dates to the early 19th century, where exams were rated along a simple four-point scale that set the basis for our current grade-point-averages.
Other colleges tried their hands at designing grading systems as well. Four-point scales were changed to nine-point scales. The University of Michigan tried a simple P for “passing,” C for “conditioned” and A for “absent” in the 1860s. Other schools tried a series of Divisions, Classes and other organizational concepts that usually revolved around a 100-point scale in one way or another. In the case of Harvard, the school tried nearly all of the above, even going back to a basic “Passed with Distinction,” “Passed” or “Failed” system in 1895.
Harvard also had the first letter-based grade, according to a reference in 1883. A student earned a B grade, although that grading system didn’t really take hold until Mount Holyoke adopted it in 1897. As with today’s grades, the letters were basically shorthand for positions on a 100-point scale, although many were more narrowly defined than many schools currently use, being limited to a five-point range. Another difference that this scale went from A to E, with the latter signifying a failing grade for any score lower than 75 percent. Mount Holyoke adjusted their scale the following year, promoting E to passing and adding the now infamous F to signify failure. Obviously, E didn’t last as long as the other letters, possibly for the slightly silly reason that it could be read as “excellent” right next to F‘s “failure,” although why that bit of branding needed addressing while A through D had no real meaning isn’t clear. Still, a scale that can’t even follow proper alphabetization seems somehow appropriate, highlighting how arbitrary these grades can be.
Transferable grades that take less time
So if grades are abstract shortcuts without real meaning, how did they catch on? While early students of Harvard could expect fairly exclusive, intimate academic communities, changes in primary education in the 20th century drastically altered how much time a teacher could spend on each student’s work. For the first time, laws required children to attend school, which when coupled with waves of immigration, meant that the number of students needing evaluation skyrocketed. Starting in 1870, the number of public high schools alone grew by 2,000 percent, reaching 10,000 schools in 1910. Teachers needed a consistent way to rate students’ performance, both for efficiency and to make grades a useful metric between schools. They haven’t always lived up to those promises, and many teachers today would like to be able to provide more personal feedback to their students. In the mean time, I’m morbidly hoping someone will start using loading bars, experience points and maybe unlockable achievements from video game interfaces, just to build a sense of progression in students’ work. At the very least, they seem as helpful and motivating as being called “worst” in Latin.
Source: An A Is Not An A: A History Of Grading by Mark W. Durm, The Educational Forum, vol. 57, Spring 1993