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This article provides a historical interpretation of one of the defining features of modern schooling: grades. As a central element of schools, grades—their origins, uses and evolution—provide a window into the tensions at the heart of building a national public school system in the United States. We argue that grades began as an intimate communication tool among teachers, parents, and students used largely to inform and instruct. But as reformers worked to develop a national school system in the late nineteenth century, they saw grades as useful tools in an organizational rather than pedagogical enterprise—tools that would facilitate movement, communication and coordination. Reformers placed a premium on readily interpretable and necessarily abstract grading systems. This shift in the importance of grades as an external rather than internal communication device required a concurrent shift in the meaning of grades—the meaning and nuance of the local context was traded for the uniformity and fungibility of more portable forms.
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Journal of Curriculum Studies
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Making the grade: a history of the A–F
marking scheme
Jack Schneider & Ethan Hutt
Published online: 16 May 2013.
To cite this article: Jack Schneider & Ethan Hutt , Journal of Curriculum Studies (2013):
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Making the grade: a history of the A–F marking
This article provides a historical interpretation of one of the defining features of modern
schooling: grades. As a central element of schools, grades–– their origins, uses and evolu-
tion–– provide a window into the tensions at the heart of building a national public school
system in the United States. We argue that grades began as an intimate communication
tool among teachers, parents, and students used largely to inform and instruct. But as
reformers worked to develop a national school system in the late nineteenth century, they
saw grades as useful tools in an organizational rather than pedagogical enterprise–– tools
that would facilitate movement, communication and coordination. Reformers placed a
premium on readily interpretable and necessarily abstract grading systems. This shift in
the importance of grades as an external rather than internal communication device
required a concurrent shift in the meaning of grades–– the meaning and nuance of the
local context was traded for the uniformity and fungibility of more portable forms.
Keywords: grades; report cards; student evaluation; grading
Grading is one of the most fundamental facets of American education. In
hundreds of thousands of modern US classrooms, grading is a well-
accepted part of schooling. It is as natural as the use of textbooks, or the
arrangement of students in desks or the presence of a teacher in the room;
it is a part of what Tyack and Cuban (1995) have called the ‘grammar of
schooling’. From the elementary grades up through advanced graduate
programmes, instructors spend hours each week correcting papers and
exams, students wring their hands over grades and steal glances at each
other’s scores and parents express various levels of anxiety about the
marks their children are earning. Grades have become such an important
feature of adolescence that we have even invented short-hand references
like the grade point average so that a student’s academic record may be
expressed with the seeming precision of a single number and judged at a
glance. And unlike so much of the ephemera of adolescence, grades have
lasting and profound consequences: once earned, they serve as a key
determinant of future success–– a mechanism through which schools, uni-
versities, and employers judge the individual’s academic achievement.
Of course, grading is not without its critics. Since the inception of
grades detractors have noted the many problems and perverse incentives
they create. Some have argued that grading does psychological harm to
Jack Schneider is an assistant professor of Education at the College of the Holy Cross,
Worcester, MA, USA; e-mail: He is the author of Excellence for
All: How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America’s Public Schools.
Ethan Hutt is an assistant professor of Education at the University of Maryland, College
Park, MD, USA. He is currently completing a book on the history of minimum
educational standards.
Ó2013 Taylor & Francis
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children (e.g. Kirschenbaum et al. 1971; Kohn 1999). Others have made
the case that grades are too simple a measure for gauging school success
(e.g. Tough 2011; Wilson 2009: 58–62). And still others have suggested
the extrinsic motivation of grading works against the fundamental
purposes of education (e.g. Beck et al. 1991: 35–37; Butler 1988: 1–14;
Milton et al. 1986; Pulfrey et al. 2011: 683–700). Still, those opponents
and their critiques have never occupied more than the margins of the
discussion over grading and they have done little to dislodge formal mark-
ing systems.
Grading remains a central feature of nearly every student’s school
experience. As such, it can be easy to perceive grades as both fixed and
inevitable–– without origin or evolution. And the effect of this is that
despite their limitations, grades are often accepted quite uncritically by all
parties involved.
Yet grades have not always been a part of education in the United
States, they have not always looked the same, have not always served the
same purpose, and have not always had the same impact. A discussion of
these matters may, then, promote more critical understanding of the
current place of grades. It may give us a way of making sense of their
necessity, purpose, utility, and potential.
Given the promise of such an analysis, it is somewhat surprising that
historians have paid little attention to the topic. Consequently, even the
most basic questions concerning the origin and diffusion of grades and
grading systems–– where they came from, what they were supposed to
achieve, and why they took the form they did–– remain largely
unanswered. This article aims to remedy that by presenting a critical and
accurate accounting of the past.
In order to do this, we locate grading systems in the broader history
of education in the United States because, as we will show, the history of
grades reflects the interplay between the work of the classroom and
society at large. As the little red school house of the frontier became
increasingly linked to the great universities of the east and the labour
markets of the continent, grades were required to serve a growing list of
functions. Tracing this development, we situate grading schemes as a key
technology of educational bureaucratization, a primary means of quantifi-
cation, and the principal mechanism for sorting students. In short, this
article frames grading as a crucial expression of the modernist impulse.
Early American grading systems owed much to the European
model–– focusing on constant competition, the awarding of prizes and rank
order competition–– and were largely used for pedagogical purposes. The
introduction of mass compulsory schooling, however, changed things
dramatically. Mass schooling placed the school at the centre of a society
increasingly dominated by complex bureaucratic institutions, including
the school system itself. Consequently, grading systems that had tradition-
ally tended towards the local and the idiosyncratic, and which were
designed for internal communication among teachers and families
attached to a given school, became forms of external communication and
organization as well. Increasingly, reformers saw grades as tools for
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system-building rather than as pedagogical devices–– a common language
for communication about learning outcomes.
If grades were to communicate beyond the school site, marking
systems had to be made more ‘legible’, more universal and more stan-
Driven by policy elites and eager administrators, grading
systems expanded, reproduced and evolved. Without a central authority
to mandate standardization or facilitate communication, they advanced in
fits and starts varying across the regions and levels of schooling. Yet by
the turn of the twentieth century, teachers, administrators, parents,
college admissions officers and employers were turning to grades for basic
information about academic aptitude and accomplishment. This is not to
say that all parties saw grades as an unqualified good; in fact many educa-
tors expressed concern about the consequences associated with grades,
particularly with regard to curriculum and instruction. Nevertheless,
reform-minded policymakers continued to pursue the system-building
aims of objectivity and uniformity well into the twentieth century.
This article offers an examination of the history of one of the most
well-accepted elements in American schools, seeking to understand how
and why an ‘A’ became an ‘A’ (and an ‘F’ became an ‘F’). In doing so, it
considers grading systems as key instruments in two different
processes–– that of internal communication oriented towards pedagogical
concerns; and that of external communication oriented towards system-
building. Ultimately, in tracing the use of grades from the origins of
formal education in the United States, this work tells a story about a core
and seemingly inescapable tension in modern schooling: between what
promotes learning and what enables a massive system to function.
Europe and the early American republic
In 1785, Yale president Ezra Stiles, after examining 58 seniors recorded
in his diary that among the students there had been ‘Twenty Optimi, six-
teen second Optimi, twelve Inferiores (Boni), ten Perjores’ (Stiles 1901).
Scores, as doled out by Stiles, were determined by the perceived learned-
ness of response. Equally, however, they were decided by a student’s
ability to demonstrate knowledge publicly (Bristed 1874). And though
this system of public examinations did not last long, it did reveal the
extent to which American educators–– at least initially–– looked to their
European counterparts for guidance.
Specifically, it appears that educators like Stiles were mimicking a
classification scheme best exemplified by the Cambridge Mathematical
Tripos examination. The Tripos was established in the first decades of
the eighteenth century, and by 1790 had taken written form. Students
competing in the Tripos, which resembled a multi-day academic tourna-
ment, were ranked prior to the beginning of the examination and were
‘re-seeded’ after each day of testing (Searby 1997: 150–170). As students
moved up in the brackets, they were challenged by increasingly difficult
questions, as well as by increasingly tougher opponents–– a fact that made
these examinations fiercely competitive.
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The rewards for performing well in these competitions were, perhaps,
worth the considerable effort required to obtain them. Like titled lords,
high scorers on the Tripos carried their distinctions forward with them and
some stood to gain considerable financial awards. The highest scorer in the
Tripos, for instance, would receive a portion of the university’s endowment
for the rest of his life (Searby 1997: 95). Low scorers, for their part, would
remain marked by their performance, as well. An 1850 biographical sketch
of Eton graduate Richard Porson, for instance, recalled that in 1777, Por-
son entered Trinity College at Cambridge and, because he ‘paid but little
attention to mathematics … only took a Senior Optime’s degree’ (Creasy
American educators, however, did not merely mimic the models of
highly visible institutions like Cambridge. While they shared the European
aim of motivating students, the idea of fixed titles struck many as anti-
democratic. At Yale, Stiles’s categories for student ranking were soon
‘replaced by a system of honors ‘appointments’ running from Orations at
the top to Dissertations, Disputes and Colloquies; and these groups were
supplemented by a system of grades running from 4 to 0 (Pierson 1983:
310). In this numerical system, originally applied only to upperclassmen
for work on oral examinations, a score of 2 earned students a passing
mark. Yale soon began using quarter points to further sub-divide the sys-
tem and extended it to younger students in 1819 and 1820. By 1837,
‘performances in individual courses were graded’ and, like grades for work
in oral exams, were dutifully recorded in the ‘Book of Averages’ (Pierson
1983: 310). These grades, however, were often kept secret from stu-
dents–– an effort to minimize the day to day competition among them
(Bagg 1872).
Yale was not the only school experimenting with ranking and grading
schemes. William and Mary faculty reports in 1817, for instance, indi-
cated that four categories were established to distinguish students: the
‘first in their respective classes’; those who were ‘orderly, correct and
attentive’; those who made ‘very little improvement’; and those who
learned ‘little or nothing … on account of excessive idleness’. As the
labelling of the second category–– ‘orderly, correct and attentive’–– makes
clear, this grading system took into account more than just academic
achievements (William and Mary College 1817: 5). And the college
shared the ordering of students into these particular categories, as well as
notes on the propriety of student conduct, with parents and guardians
(William and Mary College 1817: 15). Other colleges also issued grades
for non-academic criteria. Students of both Yale and Harvard, for
instance, found themselves graded on whether they attended chapel or
showed up to class (Peabody 1888).
Grammar schools and high schools had also begun issuing grades in
the early- to mid-nineteenth century. In the appendix to his 1824 book,
for instance, British teacher John Shoveller included ‘an example of the
manner of calculating a week’s work’ in which he graded student work by
subject as ‘optime, bene, pessime, male’, using superlatives and diminu-
tives like ‘sen’ and ‘jun’ to further differentiate quality. At a school in
Glasgow, students were examined eight times each year by a Committee
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of the Town Council, Clergy, and Professors. Their scores were ‘carefully
marked on all these occasions, and their average rank in the Class [was]
… calculated from these examinations’ (Russell 1826a: 571). Given the
high levels of migration from Britain to the United States in this early per-
iod, it should come as no surprise that many American schoolmasters
implemented similar kinds of schemes. And as was the case in higher
education, grammar and high school students were graded according to
both academic and non-academic criteria (Labaree 1988).
The European schools whose grading practices received the most
attention from American educators were the Prussian schools. Horace
Mann and his fellow reformers followed the organizational innovations of
the Prussian schools with great interest, and saw them as both pedagogi-
cal and organizational models (Mann 1845). Particularly influential
among this group of reformers was an 1837 report by Calvin Stowe in
which he noted that Prussian schools organized children and the curricu-
lum in terms in a series of stepped grades that allowed students to move
along at their own pace, while increasing the overall efficiency of the
system (Stowe 1838).
Prussia’s graded system appealed to Mann and his colleagues as a sig-
nificant improvement over the way American schools were organized.
Many schools, particularly in rural areas, had no formal record-keeping
mechanisms–– in part because students attended irregularly, in part
because students of different ages were grouped together, and in part
because there were no common texts with which to work (Kaestle 1983).
Many schools in urban areas, by contrast, were organized after the
Lancasterian, ‘monitorial’ model. Under the Lancasterian model, students
were frequently subject to examinations and direct ranking against their
classmates. Each day, students finished their assignments and were
literally repositioned in the classroom–– the top students moving to the
front of the class and the less capable students moving to the back (Kaes-
tle 1983).
Advocates of the Lancasterian system cited its cost efficiency. But they
spoke in far more glowing terms about the frequency of competition inher-
ent in it and the fluidity of its ranking–– features praised as both commend-
able and appropriately distinctive to the United States. A description of
Boston ‘monitorial’ school from 1826, for instance, noted that the highest
performers in spelling lessons were appointed as monitors, followed by ‘the
highest class’ and rank ordered down ‘to the lowest’ (‘Boston Monitorial
School’ 1826: 34). Such communication to students about their relative
standing was, at least by some, thought to motivate students. As one author
noted, ‘those who have lost their rank’ to their classmates would work to
recover it, ‘especially as their failure may have been a means of [a class-
mate’s] gain, without any merit on his part’ (Russell 1826b: 561).
The pedagogical concern with student motivation was common in the
period. Gideon F. Thayer, former principal of Chauncy-Hall School in
Boston, echoed such a sentiment in his ‘Letters to a young teacher’ in
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Tell the scholars that, as soon as you shall have become acquainted with
them, you intend to establish a ‘merit roll’, and that you cherish the hope
that all, or with few exceptions, will have a claim to the front rank … By
thus showing them that they all have it in their power to distinguish them-
selves, whatever their scholarship, you may be able to enlist a large number
of allies in your work, which will hence go on all the more prosperously,
because adopted cheerfully, or from choice. (661)
Such sentiments were not limited to K-12 schools. In 1831, the Annual
Report of the President of Harvard University stated that ‘the best assurance
for the continued and unremitted attention of students to their exercises
… [is] the certainty that at every recitation each individual will be exam-
ined; and that the estimate of scholastic rank must depend, not upon
occasional brilliant success, but upon the steady, uniform, and satisfactory
performance of each exercise’ (Harvard University 1831: 285). In short,
reformers saw in such competitions the key to student motivation.
Still, policy-makers worried about the message that this constant com-
petition sent to students and they expressed misgivings about the nature of
school reward structures. The constant ranking and re-ranking placed
emphasis on the immediacy of competition rather than on intellectual and
moral development. As Horace Mann wrote in his ninth annual report, ‘if
superior rank at recitation be the object, then, as soon as that superiority is
obtained, the spring of desire and of effort for that occasion relaxes’ (Mann
1846: 504). Pupils, he imagined, might focus so intensely on the outcomes
of examination ‘as to incur moral hazards and delinquencies’ (505).
Moreover, the shifting nature of those ranking systems made it difficult to
use them as a means of communicating beyond an individual school.
The solution to this problem, according to Mann, was not only to
transform schools from one giant competition into a series of graded
steps, but also to substitute the public quizzes and frequent re-ranking for
written examinations and a series of monthly report cards. Thus, as Mann
saw it, a student might come to understand that ‘his mind will be submit-
ted for inspection not only on its bright side, but on all the sides; and that
it will be useless for him to expect to shine on that occasion with only a
radiant beam of light thrown across it here and there, while wide intervals
of darkness lie between’ (Mann 1846: 508). Reformers likened these
report cards to merchant ledgers, which emphasized the accumulation of
success over time and provided a running account of a student’s academic
success (‘School records, 1864’).
Just as importantly, this less overt form of grading would reduce the
general level of competition among students within a school–– a move that
complimented the broader organizational move to age-grading. No longer
in direct competition with each other to get to the ‘head of the class’, stu-
dents were free to be more collegial and less competitive. The result,
reformers believed, would return the focus of education to the intrinsic
value of learning rather than the extrinsic motivation of academic acclaim
(Barnard 1854; Shearer 1899). Reformers also believed that monthly
report cards would allow teachers to keep parents informed about their
children’s achievements. An 1835 issue of the American Annals of Educa-
tion, for example, recommended a ‘weekly report to the parents, exhibit-
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ing in a compendious manner, the punctuality, deportment, and compara-
tive merit of the pupil, in his recitations’ (Woodbridge 1835: 525).
Taken together, these developments show how much American grad-
ing systems diverged from their early European origins. As the system of
common schools took root in America, reformers recognized the need for
grades to act as important internal organizational devices–– to maintain
student motivation while minimizing competition and emphasizing the
accretion of knowledge.
But though reformers were coming to a general consensus about the
purpose of grades, they had yet to standardize the practices themselves.
That was a task that would take on increasing importance as both the
public education system and society, as a whole, grew more complex in
the last decades of the nineteenth century.
Building a national system
By the end of the Civil War, grades were a relatively normal part of pri-
mary, secondary, and higher education in the United States. Despite this
normalcy, they were still determined in a highly disparate fashion, they
were represented in various ways–– lettered systems, percentage systems
and other numerical systems–– and schools modified and refashioned grad-
ing systems with considerable frequency (Smallwood 1935). At Yale, in
the 1870s, for instance, grading was briefly conducted on a 200–400
scale, whereas at Harvard, students were classified in six divisions based
on a 100% basis (Pierson 1983, 312; Smallwood 1935, 50–52). At some
schools, behaviour was calculated into grades whereas at others, it was
not (Harvard University 1869: 47). And, at some schools, grades were
given only at the end of the school year, while at others grades were
issued in periodical ‘report cards’.
But times were changing. Educational enrollments were expanding
rapidly, particularly in K-12 education–– the product of compulsory school-
ing enforcement, child labor laws and the growing use of education as a
tool for social mobility (Labaree 1988; Steffes 2012; Tyack 1977). Thus,
between 1870 and 1910, K-12 enrollments almost tripled in size and as
schools grew to absorb these students, administrators found themselves at
the helms of massive institutions (Goldin 2006). In the face of this rapid
expansion and depersonalization of schooling, administrators refashioned
themselves as professional managers whose job was to manage burgeoning
systems in the most-efficient way possible (Hansot and Tyack 1986).
Reformers saw grades as a means of creating modern systems for a
modern world. In increasingly massive urban systems, teachers could no
longer give detailed accounts of every student’s abilities. Yet this was
essential for other parts of the system to work. If students were to move
from one grammar school to another, for instance, or from grammar
school to high school or high school to college, they would need to be
tracked in some systematic way.
Students certainly had moved in previous decades from school to
school or from one level to another. But in the late nineteenth century,
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they did so with increasing frequency (Snyder 1993). Traditionally, for
instance, college entrance examinations were conducted by individual
professors at individual high schools. The lack of standardization, however,
left the results of these tests open to claims that the administration and
marking of these examinations was too idiosyncratic to be fair, to say
nothing of the tremendous effort required to carry it out (Schudson 1972;
Wechsler 1977). Colleges moved to accredit high schools based largely on
their curricula–– a workable solution as long as the market for matriculation
remained regional (Schudson 1972; Wechsler 1977). But the proliferation
of high schools and the increased mobility of students required greater
standardization. And though this problem would ultimately be solved as
much by the creation of the College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB)
as by standardization of grading practices, the creation of the CEEB never-
theless speaks to the increasing complexity of the education system and
the need to develop more efficient, standardized, and coherent coordinat-
ing mechanisms for the United States’s burgeoning school system.
These developments in education paralleled similar moves towards
developing standardized grading systems in a host of other industries.
Cronon (1992) and others have documented the tremendous amount of
work that was required to standardize products ranging from corn to lum-
ber to cattle in a way that made it possible to create national markets.
these other growing industries were revealing, markets required their own
pricing and rating systems in order to function at a larger scale. Hill
(1990: 4), for instance, has illustrated the degree to which the volumes
traded on a growing grain market made personal inspection by the buyer
more and more difficult. Consequently, ‘the communication and informa-
tion provided by uniform grades and standards were required for an effi-
cient marketing system to develop’ (Hill 1990: 1). This was the reality of
systems that could no longer rely on intimate relationships or knowledge
between buyer and seller. Mass processing, whether of grain or academic
achievement, required standardization.
Grades, then, would create for the rapidly expanding American educa-
tional system a unified and scalable mechanism for measurement and
communication (Carruthers and Stinchcombe 1999: 353–382; Epstein
and Timmermans 2010: 69–89). As Fischel (2009) has argued, the con-
siderable mobility of the Americans during the nineteenth century placed
pressure on school districts to standardize their practices–– such as school
organization and the synchronization of school calendars–– despite the
decentralized character of American education. Standardized grading
practices were similarly implicated in this mobility story and the creation
of increasingly national labour markets and the tighter vertical integration
of school systems. In other western nations, the timing and particulars
were different, but the idea was the same: the system of ranking stripped
of its prizes, and ostensibly made objective through the use of a quantifi-
able marking scale, was a prerequisite for a modern school system–– a sys-
tem characterized not only by its universality, but also by its scalability
`re 1985: 83; Van Herwerden 1947: 41).
By the 1870s, the schools were taking more aggressive actions to stan-
dardize grades. Like rankings of students, grades could indicate to
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students something about their performance and serve as a motivational
tool, all without creating rivalry and excessive competition between stu-
dents. Unlike ordered rankings, however, which only communicated a
student’s relative standing within his or her class, grades also promised to
serve as an external communication device–– to admissions boards,
employers and others. In order for either form of communication to be
successful, though, grades would have to mean something similar across
classrooms, and ideally across schools.
One manifestation of the effort to ensure greater uniformity was the
move from evaluating student work over the course of a number of years
to grading individual courses worth so much ‘credit’. After the Civil War,
for instance, the University of Michigan began defining degree require-
ments in terms of ‘full courses’, which consisted of five exercises a week
for a semester (Hinsdale 1906: 81). And by 1892, Michigan was listing
credit hours after every course in the catalogue (Gerhard 1955: 654–668).
Such standardized data sets allowed schools to measure their students
in new ways. One way was the measuring of ‘passes’ and failures. Accord-
ing to the 1875–1876 Annual Report of the President of Harvard University,
for instance, 133 students from that academic year had ‘passed in all their
work’; 11 ‘failed, but can make up’; and two ‘failed, and must repeat the
year’ (Harvard University 1876: 55). A decade later, grades were used to
determine the relative merit of students receiving tuition aid against their
peers paying full price. Sixty-five percent of students receiving aid, it
turned out, earned an A or B average (Harvard University 1889).
Some worried that while grading would achieve formal standardiza-
tion, it would come at the price of precision. While once Harvard and
other schools had taken seriously the task of rank ordering their students,
Eliot recognized that this was no longer feasible, let alone possible. The
elective system installed by Eliot meant that students were no longer tak-
ing identical courses–– a move later paralleled at the high school level with
the tracking of students–– making it hard to produce the traditional list of
students’ ranks. And though Harvard experimented for a while with a
‘Book of Comparative Merit’, this proved untenable.
Eliot’s solution, in the late 1870s, was to create a new form of honor
system that divided students into three broad categories: summa cum
laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude (Harvard University 1878). Like
the shift between some high schools from class ranks to grades, Eliot’s
system–– borrowed from European universities–– used categorized honors
to convey information about student achievement without the burden of
striving for an impossible kind of precision (Bache 1855: 27). It also con-
tinued the trend of attempting to reduce the direct competition between
members of a class, which was increasingly viewed as uncouth. As one
commentator put it, ‘Futile and somewhat anti-moral is the plan pro-
posed of trying to improve scholarship by persuading students to compete
for class rank’. Taking on the popular analogy of sports and academic
competition, he continued:
We are told that … ‘there is a close analogy between outdoor sports and
those indoor studies which are pursued for intellectual development, espe-
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cially in regard to the question of stimulum by competition’. As a matter of
fact, men pull together in a boat for the glory of their college; the man who
plays for his own oar or hand is not esteemed there or elsewhere. (Cattell
1910: 369–383)
Rather than emphasize individual glory, then, Eliot and others believed
that grades should indicate and distinguish classes of men.
In K-12 schools, parents welcomed greater uniformity in grading as a
way of receiving regular and concise information about their children’s
abilities and achievements. As Francis Parker observed in 1902, ‘parents
in general measure school progress of their children by per cents on
monthly report cards, by text-books finished, examinations passed, pro-
motions gained’ (762). Those districts and states without report cards,
then, often turned to this new technology for communicating with par-
ents. A 1912 article from The Elementary School Teacher reported that the
state superintendent of instruction in Missouri, in coordination with the
state’s rural school inspector, had devised a plan to foster cooperation
between school and home through the use of a report card. Interest-
ingly–– and as a signal of the lack of standardization at the turn of the cen-
tury, the Missouri report card did not just communicate information from
the school to parents; rather, it was also designed to allow parents to
communicate to the school something about the work being done at
home by pupils (‘Educational News and Editorial Comment’ 1912: 61).
By the dawn of World War I, most schools still pursued their own
approaches with regard to grades. Highly visible schools, particularly
among colleges and universities, often served as models. Yet there was lit-
tle uniformity across the educational system and there was little coordina-
tion at the district or state level. Grades varied in terms of letters,
percentages, or raw numbers, with generally even distributions among all.
Half of high schools included a ‘deportment’ category, and half of ele-
mentary schools included an ‘effort’ category in grading. And there was
no uniformity with regard to how often grades were issued (Ashbaugh
and Chapman 1925: 291).
What had emerged by this period was the notion of all classes in a
school issuing grades to students, and those grades amounting to an indi-
cator of student ability and achievement. And as that notion became more
accepted, grades began to communicate more and more powerfully out-
side of the school. As they did, however, they would stir up questions
among those working inside of schools about just how well they were
serving their original purpose of aiding learning.
Standardization and the bell curve
System builders in the early twentieth century continued much of the
work of their predecessors–– creating and refining grading systems, advo-
cating for greater uniformity, sharing model practices, and developing
new mechanisms for grading students. Consequently, more schools in the
early 1900s began giving grades for individual courses, compiling records
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of those grades, and adjusting their systems to square with the practices
of other schools, districts, and states.
But though educational reformers continued to make progress towards
their goal of developing grading systems, new questions began to arise
about what was actually being measured. As one commentator noted, ‘the
one common language in which the scholarly attainments of pupils are
expressed is a scalar one … if we, who live in the Middle West, read in a
New York Magazine that a certain man entered college with an average
grade of 95 … we know pretty well what that means; and so it is in the
country over’. Despite this newly achieved uniformity, he continued, ‘the
problem now presented is that of establishing a method whereby grades
assigned by one teacher can be intelligently compared with those assigned
by another, and all brought to a common standard’ (Weld 1917). In other
words, it was no longer enough to have the same grading system. The next
task was to demonstrate that grades everywhere had the same meaning.
This was not a problem unique to education. In grading commodities,
for instance, the major obstacle to creating uniformity was ‘the lack of
objective, standard measures and instrumentation’ (Hill 1990: 19). As one
observer of the wheat industry noted in 1908: ‘gradations are continuous,
and if lines are drawn to mark the limits of the grades, it is difficult to
determine the grades in cases close to the lines … [and] their interpretation
has been left largely with the grain inspectors’ (Dondlinger 1908: 221).
In education, however, this concern was amplified, given the increasing
influence that grades had on students’ futures. As Isador Finkelstein wrote
in 1912,
the evidence is clear that marks constitute a very real and a very strong
inducement to work, that they are accepted as real and fairly exact mea-
surements of ability or of performance. Moreover, they not infrequently are
determiners of the student’s career. They constitute the primary basis for
election to honorary societies, for the award of various academic honors,
for advancement from class to class, for graduation, and may even deter-
mine in some measure the student’s career after leaving the institution in
which they have been assigned (Finkelstein 1913: 6).
As one observer of the University of Missouri wrote in 1911: ‘the grade
has in more than one sense a cash value, and if there is no uniformity of
grading in an institution, this means directly that values are stolen from
some and undeservedly presented to others’ (Meyer 1911: 661). And, as
a third wrote: ‘Diplomas are hallmarks of excellence like the chemical
manufacturer’s ‘C.P.’ guaranty … [and must] be kept according to some
uniform system intelligible to the people most vitally interested–– the pub-
lic’ (Campbell 1921: 511). Objectivity, then would be elusive as long as
grades were ultimately left to the discretion of each inspector.
Some, of course, favoured an end to modern grading. In 1918, Thor-
sten Veblen argued that the ‘system of academic grading and credit …
resistlessly bends more and more of current instruction to its mechanical
tests and progressively sterilizes all personal initiative and ambition that
comes within its sweep’ (128). In a 1932 article from The Elementary
School Journal, the Assistant Superintendent of Salt Lake City Schools
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reported on an experimental report card that in most cases contained only
entries on attendance and punctuality (Worlton 1932: 179). An author
writing in the Junior-Senior High School Clearing House observed that the
report card, ‘which was once considered to be of almost divine origin, has
been challenged to mortal combat’. It was, as she noted, a ‘challenge from
a group of young crusaders who have chosen to be known as the Intrinsic
Clan against the entire family whose surname is Extrinsic’ (Sumner 1935:
340). Yet another author wrote: ‘Following the influence of John Dewey,
many educators have been trying to get activities in education to be
motivated by intrinsic interest of the pupil. In this attempt they have
attacked the giving of marks on the basis that the pupils tended to work
because they desired high marks rather than because of their interest in the
subject’ (Segel 1936: 34).
But grades were not going to be dropped, however difficult the search
for objectivity. They were too useful as an extrinsic motivation, even if
such motivation was seen as having serious consequences. Arthur L.
Campbell wrote in The School Review in 1921: ‘that our marking systems
of today are fraught with innumerable weaknesses and inconsistencies,
their most loyal adherents cannot deny; on the other hand, that they do
serve as a spur to the laggard, even their most outspoken opponents must
admit’ (511).
Grades had also become instrumental to the functioning of an increas-
ingly complex national educational system. As such, those with a vested
interest in the system, and not merely system-building reformers, had a
real stake in maintaining established grading schemes. ‘A majority of par-
ents, and too many teachers’, V.L. Beggs wrote in The Elementary School
Journal in 1936, ‘conclude that the school’s most important contribution
to the child’s education is recorded on the card’ (107). As a report on
college enrollments noted, many schools ‘which formerly admitted by
examination’ had moved to accept only ‘students who rank high in the
secondary school’–– a tendency ‘influenced by a number of studies which
show a high relation between high-school rank and success in college’
(Gladfelter 1937: 742).
The growth of grading systems in the early decades of the century was
also the product of what historians have dubbed the social efficiency
movement in American schools. Concerned that students should be
taught what they would actually go on to use, leaders like Franklin
Bobbitt and David Snedden advocated for a curriculum tailored to each
student’s future destiny. As Bobbitt put it, the aim was to ‘educate the
individual according to his capabilities’ (1912: 269). Grades, then, would
aid educators in gauging student ability, producing seemingly objective
sets of academic records. As such, educational reformers concerned with
this aim of social efficiency, as well as with ‘scientific management princi-
ples’, worked to promote the further entrenchment of grading schemes in
K-12 schools (Kliebard 1987; Krug 1969).
At the same time, the mental testing movement spurred educators to
further standardize K-12 grading practices in an effort to demonstrate
that schools, like businesses and the military, were sorting people through
precise measurement. After all, if intelligence could be measured through
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examination and then conveyed through a single figure like IQ, then mea-
suring student’s performance on school exams or in discrete academic
courses should also be possible (Sokal 1987; Wright 2005). Influenced by
such thinking, policy-makers and school leaders worked to align their
practices with contemporary thought about educational measurement.
Primarily, this manifested in efforts to create grading schemes as seem-
ingly ‘objective’ as mental tests were perceived to be, including particular
aspects like distribution across a normal curve (Cronbach 1975). As Fin-
kelstein wrote in 1913, ‘native ability, from all the evidence at our com-
mand, behaves like any other biological trait’. As such, he reasoned, ‘in
any population its distribution is that known as the curve of error, the
probability curve, or Gauss’s curve’ (11). Given this, school grades should
be devised accordingly–– ‘based upon the orientation of all students
around a central group whose accomplishment is construed to be average
or medium’ (18).
Not all educators, of course, were influenced by the mental testing
movement or convinced about the superiority of normal distributions.
After all, the teacher in the classroom grading the work of a student was
faced with a very different educational task than was the psychologist
attempting to measure native intelligence. While measuring a child’s
‘innate’ intelligence might be sufficient for sorting a student into a partic-
ular school track, grades were intended to reflect a level of achievement
and educational attainment distinct from native intelligence. It was com-
municating this level of attainment and general classroom performance
that teachers were concerned with in assigning grades. And general recog-
nition of these distinct purposes is evidenced by the large number of stud-
ies that examined the correlations among measured intelligence,
personality traits and school grades (e.g. Ames 1943; Bolton 1947).
The mental testing movement’s inclination towards objective measure-
ment and the desire to use grades as another variable in their efforts to
develop more discerning and predictive tests caused many educators to
bristle. In response to pressure to adjust grading practices, for instance,
one teacher complained that ‘it is time for the science of education … to
make [the normal curve] merely one of a class of teacher curves, all differ-
ent and having function of significance. In fact the usefulness of the tea-
cher curve … has been scandalously overlooked’ (Rutt 1943: 124). Such
objections reflected a disconnect between policy-makers focused on sys-
tem-building and classroom teachers charged with educating.
Though teachers could not deny that grades functioned as a sorting
mechanism, they frequently rejected the notion that they had to issue
them according to the parameters of a fixed distribution. Still, many
acceded to the demands of policy-makers and administrators because of
the inherent threat to teacher autonomy posed by the mental testing
movement. After all, if educators wanted to maintain their claim on pro-
fessionalism, they needed to demonstrate that their evaluations of student
work were accurate and reliable. As such, while some teachers wrote in
opposition to an increasingly rigid grading scheme, many at least out-
wardly accepted it and sought to present their grading practices as objec-
tive and scientific.
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Reformers focused primarily on the issues of objectivity and unifor-
mity saw much work for themselves in American schools (Dustin 1926:
28). A body of research developed in the 1930s and 1940s, for instance,
indicated that ‘teachers, on the basis of their judgment and such tests as
they would of themselves construct, cannot reliably mark pupils on the
basis of percentages’ (Segel 1936: 34). Another commentator, in 1936,
wrote in the Review of Educational Research that ‘variation among high
schools of the scholastic aptitude of their graduates and the variations in
the standards of marking are so great that any index based on school
marks is subject to gross misinterpretation’ (Bixler 1936: 169). Some
commentators, noting the disconnect between student achievement as
measured by standardized tests and as reflected in teacher grades, would
go so far as to wonder whether the grades were ‘fact or fancy’ (Hadley
Yet, while this motivated some to continue the search for objectivity,
it drove others to experiment with qualitative rather than quantitative
feedback. One author writing in the Elementary School Journal, for
instance, suggested a ‘diagnostic letter’ in place of grades (Beggs 1936:
112). An experiment in Pasadena, CA involved students and teachers
working together to evaluate the student’s work (Beggs 1936: 172).
Another experiment in Newton, MA, centred on letters written to parents
twice a year and accompanied by questionnaires (Beggs 1936: 172).
A teacher at Westwood High in Los Angeles reported that at his
school ‘the suggestion of substituting a letter to the home in the place of
a formal mark was considered at some length’. Two teachers designed
evaluative outlines for letters that would replace report cards in their clas-
ses. Yet they recognized that any standard form, even narrative letters,
would eventually ‘become as meaningless and as stereotyped as the sub-
ject marks they replaced’ (Geyer 1938: 531). Grades would need to be
entirely eliminated if they were to avoid what opponents derided as ‘false
standards of value among our pupils’ (Geyer 1938: 530).
But reformers placed increasing emphasis on legibility beyond the
school and a mass of information in the form of a diagnostic letter would
not allow for that. As one author wrote in 1938, ‘modern records’ were
not merely for conveying information to parents; rather, they were ‘func-
tional’ for a broad range of purposes (Wofford 1938: 185). And, as
another wrote in a 1939 issue of The Elementary School Journal:
most of the report cards issued recently appear too heavily burdened with
long check lists covering the various items that go to make up personality.
Many of these are so complex and detailed that the teacher cannot be
expected to rate them with any degree of reliability, nor can the average
parent be expected to understand the meanings of all the marks. There is
need here for simplification which will make for greater reliability on the
teacher’s part and better understanding on the part of the home. (Kvarace-
aus 1939: 747–750)
In short, by the end of the 1930s, schools were responding to pressure for
legibility. They were simplifying, working to standardize, and struggling
to implement some kind of internal uniformity. And externally, parents,
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admissions officers, and employers looked to grades for information as
Although the A–F grading system was still not standard by the 1940s, it
had emerged by that point as the dominant grading scheme, along with two
other systems that would eventually be fused together with it: the 4.0 scale
and the 100 percent system. This move was slow, of course–– the product of
a decentralized system with few formal coordination mechanisms. Yale, for
instance, went through four different grading systems between 1967 and
1981, moving from a numeric system to an Honors/High Pass system to the
A–F system and, finally, to an A–F system that also included pluses and
minuses with letter grades allowing for additional precision and sorting
(Yale Ad Hoc Committee on Grading 2013). But uniformity, in K-12
schools as well as in higher education, was slowly emerging in the United
States. And as educators would soon find out, there was no turning back.
Mutations and resistance
By the mid-twentieth century, grades in American schools had become
largely standardized. Most K-12 schools and colleges issued grades of A,
B, C, D and F to students, and those grades generally aligned with
numerical values–– an A reflecting work between 90 and 100, for instance,
and a B reflecting work between 80 and 89. By the 1960s, the A–F
system was being called ‘traditional’ and the practice of translating letter
grades into numbers–– A = 4, B = 3, C = 2, D = 1, F = 0–– was being called
‘familiar’ (Burke 1968: 12; Chansky 1964: 95). According to a National
Education Association survey (1974), letter grades were in use in over
80% of schools by 1971.
As this system took hold, other changes were also taking place. The
competition for college spots was increasing as high school graduation
became standard and a new kind of credential was sought out by the
socially and economically advantaged. Women also began competing for
college spots in greater numbers, as did students of colour.
A relatively universal system for grading in the United States reflecting
roughly consistent standards, and conveying basic information both inter-
nally and externally had a number of benefits–– largely in line with the
modernist aims of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century system-
builders. It also, however, had a number of unintended consequences.
One consequence was that it stripped teachers of much of their auton-
omy, with many feeling unable to manually override the grading system. A
1971 survey, for instance, found that only 16% of teachers believed that
letter grades were the best reporting method for elementary students and
35% believed that to be the case for secondary education (National Educa-
tion Association 1971: 81–82). But many felt locked into a widely accepted
programme. Many resisted by refusing to forcibly spread their students
across a normal distribution, many provided students with multiple oppor-
tunities to raise their grades and many issued grades for different kinds of
work, not all of it academic. Still, they graded. How could they not, with so
many depending on grades for movement through the educational system?
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Another consequence was that students learned how to pursue
rewarding grades while minimizing effort. The ‘entrepreneurial student’,
Richard Haswell would later write, shops ‘for bargain courses, encouraged
by a faculty whose jobs are defined by “course load”, administrators who
deal in credit hours as if they were coin, [and] institutions whose corpus
evolves steadily into the corporate’ (Haswell 1999: 284). Students often
gamed the system by dropping difficult classes, seeking out particular
teachers, or taking ‘easy A’ courses. To put it another way, the impor-
tance of grades as a currency for moving through the educational system
had partly superseded the pedagogical purpose they continued to serve. If
learning sometimes had to occur along the way, so be it; but otherwise,
students would do the least amount of work possible in order to attain
the token of highest value.
Though limited largely to higher education, a consumer-based
approach also played an increasing role–– heightening the focus on student
satisfaction. As colleges and universities increasingly relied on student-
based evaluations of instructors, they created incentives for grade inflation.
As Rojstaczer and Healy (2012) would later write, ‘in the absence of over-
sight, and because of the presence of positive incentives to give artificially
high grades, higher education has gradually abandoned its grading stan-
dards’. The case was slightly different at the high-school level, where the
desire to keep students satisfied was not driven by the fear of evaluations,
but the desire to please still mattered significantly.
This kind of ‘grade inflation’ was not just a function of the entrepre-
neurial student; it was also a function of the increasing embeddedness of
the school system in the society at large and the pressure this interconnec-
tedness could create. For example, during the Vietnam War, those
enrolled in college could apply for a draft deferment. But in order to keep
this deferment status, a student had to remain in good academic standing.
Scholars at the time and since have noted that such practices not only
incentivized students to enroll in college (Card and Lemieux 2001), but
also introduced an explicitly political component into a student’s grades
(e.g. Suslow 1976). To fail a student during this period was no longer just
a message that the student’s work in class had not been up to par, but
also a statement about his draft eligibility. Indeed, there is evidence that
faculty members grasped the suddenly broader implications of their
grades and became more lenient in assigning them (Bejar and Blew 1981;
Birnbaum 1977).
Even after the war ended, external considerations continued to be a
factor in student grades. Whether it was concern for the effects of grades
on student self-esteem (e.g. Bachman and O’Malley 1977; Marsh 1990),
intra-departmental concerns about attracting students through the implicit
promise of good grades (Becker 1997; Freeman 2010), or concerns, par-
ticularly strong at elite schools, about the effect of grades on graduates’
job prospects (e.g. Dickson 1984), the trend of grade inflation continued.
As of 1975, it was reported that one-half to two-thirds of the marks given
in American colleges and universities were As and Bs (Davidson 1975:
122–125). A similar trend was found in high schools (Ferguson and
Maxey 1975).
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By the 1960s and 1970s, a number of figures had begun making a case
that grades were not promoting learning. The primary argument, as voiced
in the 1962 book Perceiving, Behaving, Becoming (Combs), was for a more
humanized system. Extrinsic motivation failed to effectively focus students
on the process of learning, or so the argument went, and instead, created
unhealthy levels of competition and anxiety. Others agreed. As one
campus group put it in 1968: grade ‘pressure’ was ‘more fierce than most
faculty members realize [and] … a corollary is the obvious, continued
annoyance of grades as a goad to the attainment of success in courses’
(University of Illinois 1968: 1). According to a study from that period, a
majority of students agreed ‘that an emphasis on grades encourages cheat-
ing, restricts study to material likely to be on the test, and encourages stu-
dents to conform on tests and in the classroom to the instructor’s views
and opinions’ (Leslie and Stallings 1968: 5). As Sidney Simon wrote in
the introduction to a 1976 edited volume Degrading the Grading Myths,
‘over the past 50-plus years, millions of students have been systematically
wounded by the grading and marking system’. As he concluded: ‘it is time
to change that system’ (4). And as Norman Chansky found in 1962, many
students responded to anxiety around grades by withdrawing, and
responded to low marks with a sense of self-defeat (347–352).
Concerns about validity and reliability also continued.
As Chansky
reported in 1964, grades continued to represent different things to differ-
ent teachers (95–99). And as a Temple University study (1968) found,
different professors teaching the same course tended to produce dramati-
cally different grade distributions.
But what could be done? Alternatives like pass/fail grading, mastery
learning and contract grading would not allow for the kind of systems and
legibility that grading had in many ways been designed to produce. They
would make it more challenging to measure students against each other
to convey information in a simple and efficient manner, and to treat
education as a uniform market. Some certainly resisted grades. Evergreen
State University, for instance, or a number of private K-12 schools cre-
ated narrative evaluation schemes as alternatives to grading. Yet such
efforts are boutique responses that at least appear to be untenable as
systemic responses, and some have criticized these schools for failing to
offer credits that will transfer (Lee 2011).
While one critic made the case that changing grading systems was
necessary because of how ‘integrally related to almost every other aspect
of a school’s functioning’ they were, the opposite case might just as easily
have been made (Kirschenbaum 1976: 111). Schools and schooling had
come to depend on a standardized grading system–– for motivating
students, for determining placement, and for communicating something
about student learning both internally within a school and externally to
parents and other interested parties.
Before grading, communication about a student’s work was without
short-hand; it required full-length communication between teacher and
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pupil. This was a reasonable system for individual tutoring or for work
with small groups of students. But the ability for that information to tra-
vel or be communicated to those not intimately involved with the learning
process–– teachers, students, parents–– was severely limited. As the scale of
the education system became larger and more complex, the limitations of
these early forms of grading became more acute.
Early proto-grading schemes largely took the form of honorary titles
or class rankings, serving as markers to audiences within a school commu-
nity of each student’s relative merit. By the nineteenth century, some
improvization was taking place. From the grammar school to the college,
teachers and administrators experimented with numerical systems, class
rankings, and other forms of communicating students’ academic achieve-
ments. Still, these systems were primarily suited to the internal organiza-
tion of schools. They were relatively low-stakes affairs that often served to
channel student energies in the direction of learning.
But as reformers worked to develop a national school system in the
late nineteenth century, they saw grades as useful tools in an organiza-
tional rather than pedagogical enterprise–– tools that would facilitate move-
ment, communication, and coordination. These actors placed a premium
on readily interpretable and necessarily abstract grading systems. And, the
shift to an external communication device traded the meaning and nuance
of the local context for the uniformity and fungibility of these more porta-
ble forms.
During the inter-war period in the early twentieth century, reformers
began to emphasize a new approach to the challenge of building systems.
They continued to seek coordination as college enrollments grew, as well
as to promote standardization. But with the presumed advances of the
mental testing movement, they also sought to improve the degree to
which the grades served as objective assessments of student achievement
as opposed to the traditional ‘subjective’ teacher assessments. Increas-
ingly, school administrators sought to develop or reproduce grading sys-
tems that squared with ostensibly scientific approaches to measurement,
accelerating the isomorphic evolution of once-disparate grading systems.
By the time soldiers returned from the Second World War, they
returned to a fully modern educational system, at least where grades were
concerned. Middle and high schools used grades to track students. Col-
leges used high-school grades in admissions decisions. Businesses were
interested in the grades of the graduates they were hiring. And as a result
of all this, schools not only had to offer grades as a means of extrinsic moti-
vation for students compelled to attend, but also had to ensure that their
grades provided a readily interpretable message to future teachers, schools,
and employers about the quality of the student. The implication was that
grades were an accurate measure of both aptitude and achievement.
Grades by the mid-twentieth century allowed for a great deal of infor-
mation to be communicated in a highly efficient way. Not surprisingly,
however, they sent incomplete messages. Grades were often arrived at
arbitrarily or unfairly. They motivated some but turned-off others. And as
with so many forms of external validation, they started becoming ends in
themselves. Students learned to game the system; ‘grade grubbing’ and
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‘brown nosing’ entered the lexicon. The ‘gentleman’s C’ became a func-
tional concept among the privileged. Grade inflation began to occur, and
an anti-grading movement began to emerge.
The anti-grading movement was, in some sense, a logical outcome of
the use of grades in system-building. After all, in order for grades to be
useful as tools for systemic communication–– allowing for national
movement, seamless coordination, and seemingly standard communica-
tion to parents and outsiders–– they had to be simple and easy to digest.
Yet that set of characteristics often conflicts with learning because the
outcomes of learning are inherently complicated and messy. Conse-
quently, while grades sometimes promote learning, they often promote an
entirely separate set of behaviours.
The upshot of all of this is that educators are stuck in a bind. Many
continue to see the potential usefulness of grades as internal signals within
a school to communicate with students. At the same time, however, those
internal signals reverberate well beyond the classroom wall–– the product
of a relatively unified system in which grades have significant legitimacy
as external signals for communicating to those outside the school. As
such, educators continue to use grades to communicate with students
about their performance in a single class, but are often concerned about
the degree to which they are also affecting a student’s future outside that
isolated context. Many, consequently, have compressed grades into a nar-
rower and narrower bandwidth. Critics, concerned with systems, call this
grade inflation. Yet it might equally be thought of as an attempt to
remove the amplification of a grade, which though issued in a single class,
nevertheless echoes across a student’s permanent record. Teachers intend
to whisper to their students messages like ‘this is not up to par’ or ‘work
a little harder’ or ‘see what your classmates are doing?’ But instead, their
messages become roars. This is exactly what reformers have long worked
for–– a system in which messages travel with great volume and clarity. But
such a reality presents real challenges for the processes of teaching and
learning. And so educators have made the B-minus, the new D.
This kind of temporary truce between the pedagogical function of
grading and the systemic function of the practice will hold as long as the
history of the F still lingers, and as long as there are holdouts still employ-
ing the full range of the grading scale. That will eventually change,
however, and when it does, educators will have to find a new way of rec-
onciling the two functions. They must find a way to work within a system
that is universally accepted–– one essential for national movement, seam-
less coordination, and seemingly standard communication to parents and
outsiders. And, at the same time, they must find a way to keep students
focused on learning and not merely on a set of measurable outcomes
loosely connected to the process of education.
1. Here, we follow James Scott’s use of the term ‘legibility’ by which he means the
ability for information to have a universal meaning and understood not just in the
local context but by distant observers as well.
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2. A similar process occurred in non-natural products in other fields as well. On the
rise of Moody’s Credit Agency, see: Carruthers (2011, May). The Economy of
Promises: The Origins of Credit Rating in nineteenth-century America. Presenta-
tion to the Department of Sociology, Stanford University.
3. In 1912, Starch and Elliott published ‘Reliability of the Grading of High School
Work in English’ in which they reported that grading was highly inconsistent
across subjects and instructors.
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... The basis for a letter grade can be norm-referenced (e.g., a bell-shaped curve) or criterion-referenced (e.g., performance against a standard) (Gronlund, 1982). Letter grades can be linked to standards (Chappius & Stiggins, 2016); they serve as a tool for scholarships, matriculation, transfers, and post-graduate work; and they communicate standing and rank (Schneider & Hutt, 2014). For an undergraduate student in the USA an "A" in a Calculus course, for instance, represents an achievement of 90% (or better) of the course goals or outcomes. ...
... The GPA allows for quick comparisons. Consequently, students are conveniently ranked, sorted, and categorized (Schneider & Hutt, 2014;Soh, 2011). Due to this operational convenience and many other attractive features of the A-F grading system, this system is firmly entrenched in the United States (Schneider & Hutt, 2014). ...
... Consequently, students are conveniently ranked, sorted, and categorized (Schneider & Hutt, 2014;Soh, 2011). Due to this operational convenience and many other attractive features of the A-F grading system, this system is firmly entrenched in the United States (Schneider & Hutt, 2014). ...
To help students cope with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, higher edu- cation institutions offered students flexible grading policies that blended traditional letter grades with alternative grading options such as the pass–fail or credit–no credit options. This study conducted an in-depth analysis of the flexible grading pol- icy at a medium-sized university in the USA. We studied the differential selection of flexible grading options by course characteristics and students’ sociodemographics and academic profiles between Spring 2020 and Spring 2021. We also examined the impacts of the policy on sequential courses. Our analysis utilized administrative and transcript data for undergraduate students at the study institution and employed a combination of descriptive statistics and regression models. The analysis revealed that the flexible grading policy was utilized differently depending on course charac- teristics, with core courses and subjects like mathematics, chemistry, and economics having higher rates of usage. Additionally, sociodemographic and academic profile factors led to varying degrees of utilization, with males, urban students, freshmen, and non-STEM majors using the policy more frequently. Furthermore, the analysis suggested that the policy may have disadvantaged some students as they struggled in subsequent courses after using the pass option. Several implications and directions for future research are discussed. Full-text access to a view-only version of the paper is available through the following SharedIt link:
... Although the use o grading as an assessment tool is widespread in education (Schneider & Hutt, 2014), educators are increasingly opting to reduce or eliminate grading. Reducing or eliminating grading has been suggested as a means o enhancing the desired aspects (e.g., improving eedback and increasing equity or authenticity) or decreasing the undesired aspects (e.g., reducing teachers' workloads, students' stress, and grade infation) o assessment (Blum, 2020a;Burns & Frangiosa, 2021;Sackstein, 2015). ...
... The extensive use o grades has been criticised or leading students to ocus on comparison rather than learning and or aiming teachers' work at judging rather than improving learning (Black & Wiliam, 2018). Although some scholars have argued that grades can play a ormative role when paired with individualised comments (Guskey, 2019;Schneider & Hutt, 2014), students may ignore comments (Guskey, 2019;Schinske & Tanner, 2014), and teachers may lack the skills to provide reliable grades, oten because they do not consult with colleagues when grading (Brookhart et al., 2016;Moss, 2013). ...
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Increasingly, educators are adopting reduced grading practices to enhance the desired or lessen the undesired aspects o assessment. This review traces the scholarly origins o reduced grading and maps research on the phenomenon. Using citation analysis and qualitative content analysis and drawing on a theory o action perspective, we explore how reduced grading is conceptualised in the literature. The citation analysis uncovered two clusters o publications: one investigating primary and secondary education and the other covering higher education. The content analysis revealed our categories: rationales, contextual conditions, implementation, and consequences o reduced grading. Supported by a variety o rationales, reduced grading has been conceptualised in various ways, and the research eld is divided into two sub-domains. We discuss the implications o these results or practitioners and researchers.
... But learning in the TTC model is often not inherently motivated because a teacher and/or preset curriculum determines what children should learn each day, and children might not be interested. In the early 1700s, Cambridge University's response to students not being motivated to learn math was to institute competitive ranking for its first degree, the Mathematical Tripos (Schneider and Hutt, 2014). The Tripos was like an individual sports tournament, and the highest scorer was awarded a portion of the university's endowment for life. ...
... Hitting children who did not learn or even behave in a manner conducive to learning was common in the 1800s (Tyack, 1974). The A to F grading scheme gained traction in the United States as an extrinsic motivator in the early 1900s and is still prevalent today (Schneider and Hutt, 2014); other countries use different schemes, like 1-10 in Germany. Spelling bees, class rankings, "read for pizza" schemes, demerits, detentions, and suspensions also address the motivation problem inherent in TTC education. ...
Full-text available
Most American classrooms employ a teacher-text-centered model of instruction that is misaligned with the developmental science of how children naturally learn. This article reviews that science and the origins of the common instructional model, including three modifications intended to make it work better (grades, age-graded classrooms, and high-stakes testing) yet which time has shown are problematic. Considering scientific theory change, I show how parallel circumstances exist between the situation in education today and pre-Copernican astronomy, building the case that education is now ripe for a paradigm shift in its instructional model, away from teacher-text-centered learning and to highly structured instructional environments that support self-construction through limited free choice. One proven model that responds to our world's contemporary needs is described, and a prescription is offered for how to bring about a paradigm shift in educational practice.
... Despite this, the first instances of a systematic effort to appraise students were performed in the account of Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale University, in the 18 th century. Further, he categorised learners into four levels: optimi, inferiors, and pejores -Latin terms specifying comparative eminence, best, worse, and the worst in 1785 [3]. In the field of education, grading is a relatively new phenomenon. ...
... Likewise, various studies show that the United States first implemented letter grades by the end of the 19 th century. Colleges and high schools replaced other assessment forms with letters and percentage grades [3]. Though grading systems in the United States seem to be significantly standardised, arguments about grade increases and the value of evaluations in nurturing students' learning endures. ...
Full-text available
This paper presents the teachers' perceptions of the Letter Grading System (LGS) at secondary-level schools in the Tarakeshwor Municipality of Kathmandu district. The main objective is to study teachers' perceptions of LGS and identify how to address its foremost challenges. This research is based on phenomenological design and prefers citizen constructivism. Data is collected using decisive sampling methods and a semi-structured interview tool. The teachers' practices with the LGS are significant, appropriate, motivated, and suitable for stimulating the Nepali education system. Similarly, undergraduates' and their parents' perceptions are simply ensuing generous promotion strategy with advancement to their child without difficulties. As a result, there is a mismatch between the evaluation technique's practices and teachers' perceptions of the LGS for tracking students' progress. Furthermore, as discussed in this article, the LGS has assessed the student's proficiency and rational domain using nine reformist scales based on the performance opportunity provided. Finally, an experienced teacher believes that LGS has biased, liable, productive, and merit-based assessment tools in education without incorporating non-standardised tests into the school assessment system. Currently, LGS has a far better assessment method in the school appraisal system if it is possible to integrate non-testing devices, such as project work, classroom assignments, homework, group work, practical work, etc., as an assignment.
... Despite this, the first instances of a systematic effort to appraise students were performed in the account of Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale University, in the 18 th century. Further, he categorised learners into four levels: optimi, inferiors, and pejores -Latin terms specifying comparative eminence, best, worse, and the worst in 1785 [3]. In the field of education, grading is a relatively new phenomenon. ...
... Likewise, various studies show that the United States first implemented letter grades by the end of the 19 th century. Colleges and high schools replaced other assessment forms with letters and percentage grades [3]. Though grading systems in the United States seem to be significantly standardised, arguments about grade increases and the value of evaluations in nurturing students' learning endures. ...
Full-text available
This paper presents the teachers' perceptions of the Letter Grading System (LGS) at secondary-level schools in the Tarakeshwor Municipality of Kathmandu district. The main objective is to study teachers' perceptions of LGS and identify how to address its foremost challenges. This research is based on phenomenological design and prefers citizen constructivism. Data is collected using decisive sampling methods and a semi-structured interview tool. The teachers' practices with the LGS are significant, appropriate, motivated, and suitable for stimulating the Nepali education system. Similarly, undergraduates' and their parents' perceptions are simply ensuing generous promotion strategy with advancement to their child without difficulties. As a result, there is a mismatch between the evaluation technique's practices and teachers' perceptions of the LGS for tracking students' progress. Furthermore, as discussed in this article, the LGS has assessed the student's proficiency and rational domain using nine reformist scales based on the performance opportunity provided. Finally, an experienced teacher believes that LGS has biased, liable, productive, and merit-based assessment tools in education without incorporating non-standardised tests into the school assessment system. Currently, LGS has a far better assessment method in the school appraisal system if it is possible to integrate non-testing devices, such as project work, classroom assignments, homework, group work, practical work, etc., as an assignment.
... The desire to curb grade inflation and use grades as a mechanism to rank students for future employers is not uncommon in academia (Schneider & Hutt, 2014). ...
Full-text available
Justice Through the Lens of Calculus is a freely available MAA Notes Volume for anyone interested in building a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive math environment into their teaching and departmental practices. The volume contains case studies from over 30 institutions along with 8 cross-cutting thematic chapters written by math education researchers. Rather than simply listing best practices, the volume presents struggles, challenges, opportunities and achievements from our colleagues as well as theoretical frameworks and approaches to help us thoughtfully consider the impact of our intent. This volume is well-suited for discussion groups, professional development, workshops or courses on pedagogy. We encourage readers to reach out to the authors to learn more and foster dialogue within our community to improve mathematics for everyone!
... This generally tends to increased anxiety and lower interest in learning, especially among students from minority demographics (41). Norm-referenced grading was developed because it was believed to be less subjective (42) and is often accepted as a meaningful way to communicate between institutions (43). However, these "standard" curves can be deceiving because they may represent a comparison of student work relative to each other (44), rather than actually conveying meaningful information about individual student understanding or retention of knowledge (45). ...
Full-text available
Specifications grading is a student-centered assessment method that enables flexibility and opportunities for revision. Here, we describe the first known full implementation of specifications grading in an upper-division chemical biology course. Due to the rapid development of relevant knowledge in this discipline, the overarching goal of this class is to prepare students to interpret and communicate about current research. In the past, a conventional points-based assessment method made it challenging to ensure that satisfactory standards for student work were consistently met, particularly for comprehensive written assignments. Specifications grading was chosen because the core tenet requires students to demonstrate minimum learning objectives to achieve a passing grade and complete more content of increased cognitive complexity to achieve higher grades. This strict adherence to determining grades based on demonstrated skills is balanced by opportunities for revision or flexibility in assignment deadlines. These options are made manageable for the instructors through the use of a token economy with a limited number of tokens that students can choose to use when needed. Over the duration of the course, a validated survey on self-efficacy showed slight positive trends, student comprehension and demonstrated skills qualitatively improved, and final grade distributions were not negatively affected. Instructors noticed that discussions with students were more focused on course concepts and feedback, rather than grades, while overall grading time was reduced. Responses to university-administered student feedback surveys revealed some self-reported reduction in anxiety, as well as increased confidence in managing time and course material. Recommendations are provided on how to continue to improve the overall teaching and learning experience for both instructors and students.
This article reports on analyses of the instructional practices of six middle‐ and high‐school science teachers in the United States who participated in a research‐practice partnership that aims to support reform science education goals at scale. All six teachers were well qualified, experienced, and locally successful—respected by students, parents, colleagues, and administrators—but they differed in their success in supporting students' three‐dimensional learning. Our goal is to understand how the teachers' instructional practices contributed to their similarities in achieving local success and to differences in enabling students' learning, and to consider the implications of these findings for research‐practice partnerships. Data sources included classroom videos supplemented by interviews with teachers and focus students and examples of student work. We also compared students' learning gains by teacher using pre–post assessments that elicited three‐dimensional performances. Analyses of classroom videos showed how all six teachers achieved local success—they led effectively managed classrooms, covered the curriculum by teaching almost all unit activities, and assessed students' work in fair and efficient ways. There were important differences, however, in how teachers engaged students in science practices. Teachers in classrooms where students achieved lower learning gains followed a pattern of practice we describe as activity‐based teaching , in which students completed investigations and hands‐on activities with few opportunities for sensemaking discussions or three‐dimensional science performances. Teachers whose students achieved higher learning gains combined the social stability characteristic of local classroom success with more demanding instructional practices associated with scientific sensemaking and cognitive apprenticeship . We conclude with a discussion of implications for research‐practice partnerships, highlighting how partnerships need to support all teachers in achieving both local and standards‐based success.
Charles Astor Bristed (1820–1874) was an American scholar and author, and the first American writer to defend American English spelling. Having graduated from Trinity College in 1845 he published this account of his experiences at the university in 1852 to provide accurate, first-hand information for Americans about study in an English university, with the intention of starting a debate over the inclusion of aspects of English higher education in the American system. Volume 1 contains his recollections of his time in Cambridge as an undergraduate, with detailed descriptions of daily life, examinations, lectures and activities outside academia. Written for those with no experience of the university, this volume provides a valuable insight into the daily life of a student at Cambridge in the middle of the nineteenth century while also providing explanations for the aspects of the institution which to the outsider might seem strange.
Analyzed relationships among self-esteem, educational attainment, and occupational status. Data from a nationwide longitudinal study of more than 1,600 young men show a substantial increase in self-esteem between 1966 (when Ss were beginning 10th grade) and 1974. Reliability and construct validity data for the self-esteem measure are reported. As expected, both educational attainment and occupational status are correlated with self-esteem. Contrary to expectations, educational attainment as of 1974 was more strongly correlated with 10th grade self-esteem than with 1974 self-esteem. A path analysis led to the following conclusions: (a) Self-esteem during high school has little or no direct causal impact on later educational and occupational attainment; self-esteem and attainment are correlated primarily because of shared prior causes including family background, ability, and scholastic performance. (b) Occupational status has a direct positive impact on self-esteem. (c) Post high school educational attainment has no direct impact on self-esteem and only a trivial indirect impact via occupational status. Additional findings indicate that factors associated with educational success become less central to the self-evaluations of young men during late high school and the years thereafter. (32 ref) (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2006 APA, all rights reserved).
Background/Context College grades can influence a student's graduation prospects, academic motivation, postgraduate job choice, professional and graduate school selection, and access to loans and scholarships. Despite the importance of grades, national trends in grading practices have not been examined in over a decade, and there has been a limited effort to examine the historical evolution of college grading. Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study Here we look at the evolution of grading over time and space at American colleges and universities over the last 70 years. Our data provide a means to examine how instructors’ assessments of excellence, mediocrity, and failure have changed in higher education. Data Collection and Analysis We have collected historical and contemporary data on A–F letter grades awarded from over 200 four-year colleges and universities. Our contemporary data on grades come from 135 schools, with a total enrollment of 1.5 million students. Research Design Through the use of averages over time and space as well as regression models, we examine how grading has changed temporally and how grading is a function of school selectivity, school type, and geographic region. Findings/Results Contemporary data indicate that, on average across a wide range of schools, A's represent 43% of all letter grades, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988. D's and F's total typically less than 10% of all letter grades. Private colleges and universities give, on average, significantly more A's and B's combined than public institutions with equal student selectivity. Southern schools grade more harshly than those in other regions, and science and engineering-focused schools grade more stringently than those emphasizing the liberal arts. At schools with modest selectivity, grading is as generous as it was in the mid-1980s at highly selective schools. These prestigious schools have, in turn, continued to ramp up their grades. It is likely that at many selective and highly selective schools, undergraduate GPAs are now so saturated at the high end that they have little use as a motivator of students and as an evaluation tool for graduate and professional schools and employers. Conclusions/Recommendations As a result of instructors gradually lowering their standards, A has become the most common grade on American college campuses. Without regulation, or at least strong grading guidelines, grades at American institutions of higher learning likely will continue to have less and less meaning.