How grades came to be

By Lyuba Nicheva

Chances are you  are raised around the internationally accepted notion of grading. This includes all forms of grading – on assignments, projects, participation and exams- both numerical and letter. It is the case on math tests just as well as art projects. To put it into other words – grades are a system for assessing the knowledge students have obtained throughout their studies. Even though assessment has been part of education for quite a while its meaning and importance has changed throughout the years. 

A bit of History 

Grades as they are known today are a relatively new concept. For a long time any comments and notes on a students performance were either formative or they were not shared with the student, as to avoid competition. Though schools started using some type of grading prior to World War I there was a lack of standardization amongst them. Back before a standardization was reached, different forms of grading included the 4.0 scale and the 0-100% system as well as the A-F system. At a later point they were all combined into one system. The A-F system even though the dominant grading scale now was still not adopted everywhere until later during the 20th century. Standardization made the process easier for students to apply to higher education and to compare education throughout the US, which consequently lead to higher competition among peers. Which raises the question: Why is competition so important now? And what effect does it have on students?  

Critics of grades

Grades are not merely ways to assess knowledge, they can also some negative impact on children. Receiving a lower grade is so impactful to a student’s life that it can cause psychological trauma. This is especially the case when there is no additional feedback or explanation to back up the grade. A feedback attached to a grade can help a long way with motivating students to learn more, not only obtain a better grade. This is the case for both falling and excelling students as it adds meaning to the grade not simply assigning a number or a letter to their work. So it good to remember that grades were not always part of the educational system, therefore they are not a fixed and unchangeable part of schooling. As with anything else they are up to interpretation and improvement. 

Grades now – Inflation

In recent years the US educational system has shown a trend of grade inflation, even more so in private institutions than public ones. There are multiple causes for such a phenomenon.   While some argue that students’ performance has improved and the average grades have risen as a result of that, SAT results do not support such claims.  Other scholars argue that the inflation is a result of “university level factors or instructors-specific characteristics”. In education prior to PhD the grade inflation may be in the interest of departments as presents them in good light. 

Students from all over the world have a different experience with grading, but many don’t understand where and how grades came to be. It is useful to know the different grading systems and the reasoning behind each of them. Such knowledge enables students to critically reflect on their grades and might help them choose their preferred grading systems.  Standardization has a long way to in order to accommodate everyone. Especially so for international students that have a hard time adjusting to university scores different from what they are accustomed to in their home country.