US school grading system

How come schools assign grades of A, B, C, D, and F—but not E?

The school board in Mount Olive, N.J., will get rid of the D grade starting this fall, in an effort to raise the standards for graduation. From now on, any student whose average grade falls below a 70 will simply fail. How did we end up with an A-B-C-D-F grading system, anyway? Did schools ever assign a grade of E?

Yes. The earliest record of a letter-grade system comes from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts in 1897. (There is a passing reference in the Harvard archives to a student receiving a B grade in 1883, but no evidence of a complete A-through-F system.) The lowest grade at Mount Holyoke was an E, which represented failure. The rest of the scale was a bit irregular, with A representing scores between 95 and 100, while B and C each stood for 10-point ranges. Students could get a D only with a score of precisely 75, with anything below that receiving the dreaded E. One year later, administrators changed the failing grade to F and tweaked the other letters. The new scale offered better symmetry, since each grade represented five points, with scores below 75 resulting in failure. (The E was promoted to cover scores from 75 to 79.) Over the next two decades, variations on the letter-grade system spread across the country and into primary and secondary schools. It's hard to put a date on the end of the E, but it was gone from most colleges by 1930. Apparently, some professors worried that students would think the grade stood for "excellent, " since F stood for "failure." That said, there's no evidence of similar concerns over, say, B—which might just as well stand for "brilliant" as "bungled."

Grading of any sort is a relatively modern innovation. Yale may have been the first university in the United States to issue grades, with students in 1785 receiving the Latin equivalents of best, worse, and worst. Prior to that time, U.S. colleges employed the Oxford and Cambridge model, in which students attended regular lectures and engaged in a weekly colloquy with their proctor, in writing and in person. The students were determined to have completed the course when the proctor, and sometimes a panel of other professors, decided they had demonstrated an adequate mastery of the subject. There was no grade. The only way for a potential employer to compare students' credentials was on the basis of letters of recommendation.

Corwin Press Developing Grading and Reporting Systems for Student Learning (Experts In Assessment Series)
Book (Corwin Press)
  • Title - Enhancing Program Quality in Science and Mathematics.
  • Author - Joyce S. Kaser.
  • Primary Author Affiliation - WestEd.
  • Other Authors - Patricia S. Bourexis.
  • Pages - 240.
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