History of the Modern Grading System

A, B, C, D, F might be just random letters for adults, but in a student’s life, these letters hold crucial significance as an indicator of their academic attainment.

However, these letters were not always used to grade students. From nothing to descriptive adjectives, numerical scales, and then percentages, the academic evaluation system took many forms as the school systems experimented throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Today, educational institutions throughout America use different variations of the standard five-letter system to evaluate students. So how did we end up here? To find out, let’s have a look at the history of the modern grading system.

18th Century and Earlier

A Black and While picture of an old classroom

If you peek into history books, you’ll see that even as early as 1646, universities, such as Harvard, were conducting oral exit exams to assess knowledge of their students before awarding a degree. Meanwhile, other institutions held regular competitions to allot seats in the class.

Such records show that some form of grading system was in practice even then. However, official data prove that a standardized evaluation system surfaced further 140 years later in the academic world.

The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles

Yale was the first American college that used grading to create distinctions among students. In 1785, President Ezra Stiles instituted the first known grading system there, which ranked students, using a 4-point grading scale, into the following categories: Optimi, second Optimi, Inferiores, and Perjores.

He wrote in The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles (1901) that 58 students in an examination got grades as follows: “Twenty Optimi, sixteen-second Optimi, twelve Inferiores, and ten Perjores.”  This 4-point scale was, later on, superseded by single letters and numbers.

The Grading Systems in The Early 19th Century

A black and white picture of school students undertaking exams in the classroom at Yallourn, in 1947

Origin of Numerical Scales

The dawn of the 19th century saw the emergence of numerical scores in grading systems.

In 1813, Yale substituted its 4-point scale of adjectives for one with numerical marks. Faculty members assessed the students’ overall performance and then granted them an average score between 0 to 4, where 2 was the passing mark. These scores, along with other information about the students, were noted in a Book of Averages. Soon Yale replaced this scale with a 9.0 scale. However, it proved quite unpopular among faculty members.

In 1832, Yale reinstituted the 4-point scale. This scale today is the forerunner of the grade point average (GPA), employed all around the world by universities and colleges for course grades. Yale soon began to use this scale for not only end-of-school exams but to record student credit in individual classes as well. These marks, however, were jotted down in code words and were not disclosed in an attempt to thwart unhealthy competition among students.

Following suit, many colleges started introducing numerical grading scales of their own. In 1830, Havard employed a numerical grading system. It used a scale of 20 instead of the conventional 4-point scale. By 1837, several teachers at Harvard, including math and philosophy professors, were grading students using a 100-point system. Soon students in these colleges were required to score a percentage above a certain number to graduate.

Meanwhile, some universities like William and Mary had a more individualized and holistic approach towards evaluating their students’ intellectual capabilities. Such institutions used expressive adjectives to classify them. According to an 1817 faculty report, they awarded their students the following categories based on their conduct and attendance:

  • No.1: The first in their respective classes
  • No.2: Orderly, correct, and attentive
  • No.3: They have made little improvement.
  • No.4: They have learned little or nothing.

The earliest record showing that William and Mary used a numerical scale dates to 1850. It was a 4-point scale, with 1 being the highest grade and 4 the lowest.

Late 19th century

A black and white picture of students at Prof. Leopold’s Schönbauer’s lecture in 1948 

Michigan’s Experiments

Throughout the 1850s and 60s, the University of Michigan made several attempts to evaluate its students fairly. First, it used the numeral scale but soon replaced it with a pass-fail system in 1851. Less than a year later, in 1852, it switched to a ‘plus and minus’ system, where the plus sign indicated that the pupil had passed the examination. In the early 1860s, it had reinstated the 100-point numerical scale. By 1867 it had devised a new evaluating system in which evaluations were as follows: P for Passing, C for Conditioned, and A for Absent.

In 1895, the University of Michigan modified and adopted a system with somewhat familiar gradings to Harvard. These gradings were: Passed, Incomplete, Conditioned, Not Passed, and Absent.

Harvard’s Solution to Ranking Students

In 1877, Harvard concocted a 100-point to categorize students into six divisions based on their grade percentage out of 100 percent.

  • Division 1 — 90 or more
  • Division 2 — 89 to 75
  • Division 3 — 74 to 60
  • Division 4 — 59 to 50
  • Division 5 — 49 to 40
  • Division 6 — below 40

Present data suggests that the use of letters for grading started in 1883 at Harvard when a student received a B. The same year the percentage system of marking was abandoned and replaced with a five-category system that classified students into five groups, the lowest of which consisted of students who had failed.

In 1895, Harvard invented another scale of merit with the following classifications: Failed, Passed, and Passed with Distinction.

Throughout the second half of the century, universities from around America switched to and fro in an array of grading scales.

The Advent of The Modern Grading System

Female Seminary, Mount Holyoke in 1837

Alt-text: Female Seminary, Mount Holyoke in 1837

Mount Holyoke—The Pioneer of Letter Grading System

1897 marked the advent of a new era in the academic world. It was the year when Mount Holyoke College devised a marking system by combining three different types of grading practices: descriptive words, letters, and percentages. Students were now marked using the following grades:

  • A — Excellent, equivalent to percents 95—100
  • B — Good, equal to percents 85—94
  • C — Fair, equivalent to percents 76—84
  • D — Passed (barely), representing percent 75
  • E — Failed, below 75

In 1898 they revised this system by adding an F grade for Failed and adjusting the remaining letters along the 100 percent scale.

By the early 20th century, this system was standardized in universities through the States. The country also saw a massive influx of students in elementary schools as states throughout America were passing compulsory-attendance laws. Therefore, elementary and secondary schools too instituted a standardized grading system to evaluate their students.

The Takeaway

Mount Holyoke’s invention laid the foundation for modern college grading. While colleges employed the letter system by using a 100-point scale, others instituted the grade point average (GPA) scale: A for 4.0, B for 3.0, C for 2.0, and D for 1.0.

Though educational institutes appreciate a standardized grading system, debates often arise about grade inflation and the efficacy of grades for evaluating a student’s learning in this modern era.