With the public forum sponsored by the school district earlier this week to discuss schools’ grading, homework, and re-testing policies and practices, I have fielded a lot of questions about the word grade and the history of grading.

The most popular question is, of course, “Why do we not assign E as a letter grade?”

We’ll get to that.

I have much to say about grading, as you will no doubt guess. When I was working on my M.Ed. about 10 years ago, I was just starting to hear about different approaches to grading: traditional A-F, standards-based, contract and even no-grading. It seems like we’re experiencing what early public educators experienced over 200 years ago.

Let’s start with the word grade itself.

The English adopted the word grade from the French in the 1510s, and it meant a degree of measurement.  It replaced the Old English gree (from the same Proto-Indo-European root, as you’ll see), meaning a step.

As preserved in the Old English form, grade comes from the Latin gradus, meaning a step climbed, like on a ladder or stair. The Romans often used gradus figuratively to mean a step toward something, like a goal, or rising to something by stages.

Grade’s root is found in the Proto-Indo-European word ghredh, which meant to walk or to go. The same root is in the Lithuanian gridiju, meaning to wander, and the Irish in-greinn, meaning he pursues.

It’s a fabulous metaphor for grades: A grade is a step toward something, an indicator that you are closer to a particular goal, that you are rising toward or pursuing something.

In fact, this root is the second part of words ending in –gress, such as progress and congress. Etymologically, congress is supposed to mean step together, but we see that usually our Congress is out of compliance with that definition.

So for centuries, the word grade was used relative to measurements. In 1807, the word is used to refer to the quality or value of things. A couple of decades later, it was used to define the division of a school curriculum equal to one year, as in first grade, second grade, etc.

Which brings us to the history of grading.

Before letter grades were issued (first by Harvard in 1883, but established by Mount Holyoke College in 1897), students were evaluated almost exclusively on a pass/fail system. In fact, nearly the entire history of student evaluation before the Industrial Revolution was pass/fail.

The most important indicator of a student’s education before the 19th century was not GPA, but who your teacher was. Before the capitalist-business model took over public education, education was more like a mentorship or apprenticeship, in which an expert in the field or skill determined whether or not a student was competent.

Until a dude named William Farish came around. Farish was a tutor (and abolitionist) in 1792 England, and he devised a numerical grading system for seniors’ oral exams at Cambridge. As an advocate for the poor, Farish saw too much bias in how students’ exams were graded, and hoped this numerical system would be more fair to the lower class.

Yale experimented in 1785 with grades based on Latin commendation: Optimi, Second Optimi, Inferiore, and Pejores (The original A, B, C, D system). They switched to a four-point scale in 1813, then to a nine-point scale. Inspired by Farish, Harvard used a 100-point system, too, but switched to a Class I, II, III, IV, V sequence until 1883. It was all in flux.

During the Industrial Revolution, factories adopted a A-D model to classify the products coming out of their factories: A meant the product was flawless; D meant the product had flaws but was salable. It was meant to standardize production and keep employees accountable.

Soon, schools adopted that system, which is why there’s no E grade today. Schools added F to plainly indicate failure.

So it’s a misnomer to use “traditional” to refer to a 100-point system or A-F system, as they have only been around for 100 years or so. “Traditional” is pass/fail.

Ultimately, numerous studies have shown grades are an irrelevant measurement of a student’s abilities or possibility of success as an adult. They do exist to make students, teachers and parents feel good (or bad) about themselves, however. But grades also permit us to label misfits, the disabled or those needing remediation, who have long been dismissed in education.

Grades are not a necessary evil, as some say, and a return to A-F grading is indeed a step backward.

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