Origin of Everything


Why Do We Get Grades in School?

Will you get a B+, C, an A-, a D+ or the dreaded F? We’ve all had that moment of sheer panic while waiting for your report card. But when you step back, it’s worth asking why do we get letter grades at all? And whatever happened to E? Find out in this week's episode!

AIRED: December 05, 2017 | 0:07:45

We all remember the dreaded end of semester Armageddon known as "report card day."

But why do we get letter grades in school at all?

So getting grades is a big part of the way we view education with A's equaling success

while F's represent the dreaded failure.

Students are taught early on that to get ahead in life, and be smart and successful, the

best foundation is getting perfect report cards in school.

Grades can help us get into advanced courses and competitive colleges, and certain exams

can grant us licenses to practice different trades and professions.

But outside of the nagging question about why we skipped over the E grade, have you

ever wondered: When were the first grades given and why?

Well if you want to blame someone, it appears that the first grades date back to Yale president

Ezra Stiles in 1785.

He wrote in his diary that there were 58 students present at his examination and that their

grades were "Twenty Optimi, sixteen second Optimi, 12 Inferiores (Boni), ten Pejores."

These are usually noted as the first college grades ever assigned.

In Yale's 1813-1839 "Record of Examinations" students' averages were noted in the book

by the Senior Tutor of the Class on a scale of 4, which may be responsible for the 4.0

scale commonly used today.

In 1817 the faculty reports from William and Mary College groups students into 4 categories

"No 1 the first in their respective classes, No 2 Orderly, correct, and attentive, No.

3 They have made very little improvement, No. 4 They have learnt little or nothing."


That's a major teacher burn.

But the four point scale wasn't really standardized throughout the 19th century.

Harvard tried a 100 point scale and a 20 point scale.

Yale later tried a 9 point scale.

So until 1850 it was normal for grades to vary in terms of number systems, and weight.

In US colleges professors used descriptive adjectives to assign value rather than relying

on the numbers alone.

But by 1883 there is a report on a Harvard professor giving a student a "B" grade,

which is when letters got incorporated into the act.

In 1886 Harvard Faculty Records show that professors began grouping students into 5

classes based on performance.

Similar 5 point systems spread to places like Yale, and Mount Holyoke, the latter of which

adopted the first letter grade system in 1897.

But a failing grade was marked as an "E" and not an "F".

Over time the E was dropped and the standard system across US colleges became 5 points

all represented by letters A, through D, and F. But the meanings of grades and the systems

for recording them often shifted in the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries

Ok so we've established that if we want somewhere to point the finger of blame for

why we received stressful grades in school, and why a less than stellar score on a 6th

grade pop quiz gave me heart palpitations, we can start with a bunch of 19th century

college professors.

But the more important questions is: why are we still getting grades in school today?

Those guys are dead.

So they're useful for determining class ranking, they help teachers group students

into categories, and they can also be instrumental in whether or not you can enter into certain


But because I'm sure a lot of us are still suffering from post report card induced stress,

we have to ask the most pressing questions: do grades really matter?

And are they actually effective tools for helping students learn?

Well the answer to the first question "do grades really matter" is kind of complex

and has to be broken down a bit to get to the heart of it.

Because it seems that the importance of your grades depends on the path you decide to take.

Although we're taught that grades are the strongest predictor of success in life, this

isn't uniformly true.

The issue with grades is that they consider averages, which gives you the most usual outcome

but not the full picture.

An average doesn't consider the outliers, but rather the collective information from

a certain group.

History is actually filled with successful people who didn't finish college or even

high school: Magic Johnson, Anna Wintour, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Oprah Winfrey

to name a few, and none of these people did too shabbily in the life success department.

Also having perfect grades in high school doesn't always predict future game changers.

Karen Arnold of Boston University conducted a study in which she followed 81 high school

valedictorians and salutatorians.

She found that the majority of them continued being successful at school later in life.

95% earned college degrees with an average GPA of 3.6, 60% went to graduate school, 90%

are in professional jobs, and 40% are in the highest tiers of those jobs.

This is because a high GPA reflects skills like being prompt, working really hard, following

directions and being well rounded.

All important skills for high level careers.

But Arnold found that although most of her former high school valedictorians and salutatorians

were "strong occupational achievers" none had entered into roles she would consider

"visionary" because the grades we receive in school are designed to reward conformity

and following the rules, rather than creative thinking or specialization.

For example if you're really great at history (shout out to our audience members) but you

still want to be ranked number 1, you eventually will have to put that history textbook on

the back burner to study other subjects and earn the coveted "A" in every field.

Having a high GPA is usually indicative of being a generalist, not a specialist.

Arnold posits that most people who become ground breakers are actually rewarded for

creative thinking, a unique specialization, and a focus on an intellectual passion, things

that don't always get rewarded with grades.

As a result a lot of people who become successful later in life often struggle in school.

But a 2002 study at the University of Michigan still found that 80 percent of students based

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having lower self-esteem and health.

So that brings us to the next question: do grades really help students learn?

Although grades have long been considered the standard approach in education, some experts

are turning away from letter based systems.

One of the biggest critics of the fixation on grades in schools is education expert Alfie


Kohn notes: "The research quite clearly shows that kids

who are graded - and have been encouraged to try to improve their grades - tend to

lose interest in the learning itself, avoid challenging tasks whenever possible (in order

to maximize the chance of getting an A), and think less deeply than kids who aren't graded...That's

why the best teachers and schools replace grades (and grade-like reports) with narrative

reports - qualitative accounts of student performance - or, better yet, conferences

with students and parents."

Teachers also report that grading is becoming increasingly stressful, as grade inflation

puts added pressure on them to deliver the grades that students want and parents expect.

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a system where students received 2 report cards: one with

the traditional letter grades, and another with a individualized breakdown of what students

had learned and the students' progress in school.

Virginia's Fairfax County implemented a similar process in their elementary schools

in the 2012-2013 school year.

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assessing their child's growth and progress in school.

And classrooms around the world, including public schools, private schools, and educational

initiatives funded by nonprofits, are looking to incorporate new methods in the classroom

that place less emphasis on memorization and focus more on innovation and how students

can retain new knowledge.

So even though grades are the oldest way of doing things, they may not be the best for

measuring students' long term success.

So how does this all add up?

It seems grades do have some weight in determining student outcomes because we've based so

many systems around it, but this can vary a lot based on the individual.

While grades are extremely important in certain trajectories, like going to college, attending

graduate school, or entering into certain professions, they ultimately aren't the

only determining factor of success.

And although we've accepted them as the marker of a good student, a perfect GPA doesn't

always represent things like creativity, ingenuity, and intellectual passions.

Which is why more school systems and educators are looking for ways to measure student progress

outside of letters and percentages.


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