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What Is the History of Grading?

Christine Lee
Christine Lee
Content Manager






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We talk a lot about assessment, feedback, and grading as core to student learning and teaching efficacy. And why not? It’s a critical intersection that ought to be discussed and examined for continuous improvement.

It’s also important to examine how it is we got here, and learn from where our modern grading comes as we innovate. Additionally, it’s important to note too, the reasons behind the current grading systems.

Assessment isn’t new; it has been around for centuries because education has always been rooted in the knowledge exchange between students and instructors. The goal of assessment is to improve student learning by systematically examining student learning patterns to inform future teaching and learning.

Grading, a subset of assessment, focuses on measuring individual student learning. Letter grades, evaluative and numerical grading, and grading on a curve are all relatively new in the realm of education because the concept of grading is a recent practice. Letter grades were not in widespread use until the 1940s. And in fact, even in 1971, only 67% of primary and secondary schools in the United States used letter grades.

So how did we get here? And why?

Letter and numerical grades were absent from the beginnings of student evaluations. The ancient Greeks used assessments as formative and not evaluative learning tools. Harvard required exit exams in 1646 to attain a degree. And in 1785, Yale president Ezra Stiles implemented the first grading scale in the United States based on four descriptions: Optimi, Second Optimi, Inferiores, and Perjores. Other universities like William and Mary followed similar approaches in 1817 (Durm, 1993). These grading systems appeared in conjunction with the UK--researchers surmised that “it appears that educators like Stiles were mimicking a classification scheme best exemplified by the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos examination,” which evaluated student learning (Schneider & Hutt, 2014), making these systems a global phenomenon.

However, even though these schools had a marking system, many hid these marks from students so as to discourage a competitive environment that would distract students from learning (Schinske & Tanner, 2014).

Pedagogical figures such as Horace Mann worried about the message of competition within grading sent to students and its effect on student learning and intellectual development. 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,” adding that students might prioritize exam outcomes “as to incur moral hazards and delinquencies” (Mann, 1846 pp. 504-505). The debate around the merits of grading has been around for as long as grading has existed.

Even so, grading moved from its holistic origins to a more standardized, objective, and scale-based approach in the early 1900s as U.S. education expanded and tripled in size due largely to compulsory K-12 education. Consequently, a need for a unified system prioritized standardized and efficient communication between academic institutions. Grades could no longer be specific to an individual school or university. Grades could no longer be specific to an individual student but needed to have meaning to third parties. And grades became widespread.

By the 1940s, the A-F grading system emerged 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” (Schneider & Hutt, 2014). Numerical and letter grades were here to stay--and what followed was grading on the curve and setting grades relative to the grades of cohorts, especially popular in large introductory STEM courses in higher education. In fact, grading on the curve aimed to minimize the subjective nature of grading (Guskey, 1994). What we know now is that grading on a curve, too, increases competition between students and may unfairly reward those engaged in academic misconduct.

Our current A-F or numerical grading system is founded on streamlining communication between academic institutions and not so much on improving student learning. While grades can motivate high-achieving students (how many educators have received re-grade requests?), there remains a need for improvement. When students are focused on grades rather than on the actual learning experience--it leaves them at risk for short-cut solutions. Furthermore, providing grades without feedback can be detrimental to student motivation, according to a recent article by Tim Klein in EdSurge. Grades alone do not advance student learning. Ellis Page’s research states that “grades can have a beneficial effect on student learning, but only when accompanied by specific or individualized comments from the teacher” (Guskey, 1994).

Grading is a way to communicate information with great efficiency--but the information is by nature, incomplete. According to Schneider and Hutt’s article Making the Grade: A History of the A-F Marking Scheme:

“In order for grades to be useful as tools for systemic communication––allowing for national movement, seamless coordination, and seemingly standard communication 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. Consequently, while grades sometimes promote learning, they often promote an entirely separate set of behaviours” (Schneider & Hutt, 2014).

The innovation will occur in the space where educators are optimized to operate, where the two forces have to be reconciled--in the classroom, virtual, or in-person. The grading system is essential for coordination and communication to third parties--but it must also focus on student learning.

So, how can educators uphold learning within the current grading construct?

Feedback loops are critical to knowledge exchange, both for high-achieving students and for those who are struggling. Without feedback loops, the assessment intersection becomes simply evaluative and the chance for student growth diminishes. Tools like Draft Coach, Feedback Studio, and Gradescope enable feedback loops throughout the student and instructor workflows. For instance, Draft Coach takes a formative approach as students work on writing assignments. Feedback Studio enables teachers and students to exchange feedback on writing assignments. And Gradescope activates feedback loops in assessment and grading so that students absorb the knowledge needed to move forward in learning.

Taking a moment to reflect shows us that grading has and can evolve. Much of education is faced with the challenges of online grading and online assessment--and the roadblocks we face. But ultimately, this can lead to positive change and further evolution of grading and assessment with integrity while supporting student learning and teaching efficacy.