S5E9 - History of Grades

January 20, 2023
  • For the Record
  • for the record
  • grades
  • podcast

Did you know that what we consider the “standard” letter grade system is a relatively recent phenomenon in US higher education? The history of grades and grading schemes is a long and circuitous tale that illustrates how higher education has evolved over time. From the first categorization of student learning in 1785 at Yale to the first letter grade system in 1897-1898 at Mount Holyoke, through the standardization of student records and grading schemes in the early to mid-20th century, registrars have been involved at every step of the way. This episode highlights the historical interplay of society and higher education through the lens of the student learning assessment practices, e.g. grades.  

Key Takeaways:

  • There were a variety of different approaches to assessing student learning in early US higher education. These systems coalesced around categories, ranking, and quality points to give us the standard letter grade system we know today. 

  • The enduring variance in institutional grading schemes and grading practices highlights the inherent power of the faculty at each different institution, and makes the work of the registrar critical for accurate record-keeping. 

  • Grades and grading schemes will continue to evolve and change, as external pressures (like a pandemic) necessitate new approaches to grading, and as faculty continue to explore the best, and more appropriate ways to assess and communication student learning and achievement.


Doug McKenna, University Registrar
George Mason University

Very Special Guest:

LTC (Ret.) Doug McKenna, Ph.D.

Additional Resources:

Doug McKenna - HE721 - “Making Grades” learning activity 

Campus Life: Bowdoin. (1990, April 15). The New York Times, 31.

Downing, M. (1964). Variations in college grading systems. The Journal of Higher Education, 35(2), 98–100. https://doi.org/10.2307/1979786

Education in the United States. (2023). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Education_in_the_United_States&oldid=1130789398

Gold, R. M., Reilly, A., Silberman, R., & Lehr, R. (1971). Academic achievement declines under pass-fail grading. The Journal of Experimental Education, 39(3), 17–21.

Haagen, C. H. (1964). The origins of a grade. The Journal of Higher Education, 35(2), 89–91. https://doi.org/10.2307/1979782

History of higher education in the United States. (2022). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_higher_education_in_the_United_States&oldid=1125667303#Twentieth_century

History of the modern grading system – GradeMaster LLC. (n.d.). Retrieved January 8, 2023, from https://grademaster.net/history-of-the-modern-grading-system/

Marcus, J. (2022, October 1). Momentum builds for helping students adapt to college by nixing freshman grades. The Hechinger Report. http://hechingerreport.org/momentum-builds-for-helping-students-adapt-to-college-by-nixing-freshman-grades/

National Center for Educational Statistics. (1993). 120 years of American education: A statistical portrait. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs93/93442.pdf

Schneider, J., & Hutt, E. (2014). Making the grade: A history of the A–F marking scheme. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(2), 201–224. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220272.2013.790480 

Silva, E., White, T., & Toch, T. (n.d.). The Carnegie unit: A century-old standard in a changing education landscape. 

Tierney, W. G. (2021, April 5). What should higher ed learn from World War II? Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2021/04/05/higher-ed-should-learn-lessons-world-war-ii-about-serving-public-good-opinion