Why There Is No E in the A-F Grading Scale
Rather than a failure on the part of academic institutions to know the alphabet, the simple answer is that “F” stands for “fail.” The other four grades are more or less considered “passing” (though in some districts a D is also a failing grade), which is why they go in alphabetical order. The F is considered separate as it denotes a failing grade, and does not need to go in alphabetical order. It just so happens that “fail” starts with a letter that skips one letter alphabetically on the scale.
That said, E was used at one point. The first college in the United States to use a grading scale similar to the one we know today was Mount Holyoke College, an all-women’s university in Massachusetts.
Before that, Yale used a ranking system in 1785 where “optimi” was the highest mark, followed by second optimi, inferiore (“lower”), and pejores (“worse”). William and Mary ranked students by number, where No. 1 was the first in their class and No. 2 students were “orderly, correct and attentive.”
For a while, Harvard had a numerical grading system where students were graded on a scale from 1-200 (except for math and philosophy classes, which were 1-100). Yale had a four-point scale in 1813, switched to a nine-point scale somewhere down the track, and back to a four-point scale in 1832.
In 1883, there’s a single reference to a student earning a “B” at Harvard, but historians haven’t found additional documentation to back up the idea that a letter grade system was actually in place at that point. It is known that just a few years later, Harvard had a system of Classes in place—students were either Class I, II, III, IV, or V, with V being failing.
That brings us back to the 1887 Mount Holyoke system, which looked something like this:
- A: excellent, 95-100%
- B: good, 85-94%
- C: fair, 76-84%
- D: barely passed, 75%
- E: failed, below 75%
A year later, Mount Holyoke modified their grading scale. “B” became anything from 90-94%, “C” was 85-89%, “D” was 80-84%, and “E” was 75-79%. Below that, they added in the dreaded “F.”
Over the years, the letter grading scale became popular across colleges and high schools alike. A lot of schools skipped E and went straight to F. Apparently, some teachers were concerned that students and parents thought E stood for “excellent,” though there is no evidence suggesting that they thought A stood for “awful,” so it’s possible that schools were just trying to simplify the scale. After World War II, some schools—many in the Midwest—decided to go back to E, getting rid of F.
In truth, any letter could stand in for E or F and still mean the same thing. Some schools use “U” for “unsatisfactory” or N for “no credit.” Educators could use just about any letter and it would amount to the same thing. It is simply an indicator of a non-passing grade.
The grading scale itself has been marked with an F (or E, or U, or N) by some people who believe it is no longer a relevant way to judge students’ work. For one thing, there are variations across institutions. Some schools use + and -; some don’t. Some say an A is 90% and up, or 93% and up, or 95% and up. Some consider a D to be a failing grade rather than a passing one.
Critics of the grading scale believe a written analysis of students’ work would be more effective in terms of feedback, but they recognize that students and parents probably wouldn’t read them and teachers, who are often overworked as it is, don’t have time to write them anyway. Letter grades are just an easy way to generalize a student’s performance; so despite the discrepancies between schools, they’ll probably be around for a long time.
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- According to the National Center for Education and Statistics, around 50.1 million children were attending U.S. public schools; 5.2 million were in private schools; over 1.5 million were homeschooled; and 21.8 million people were attending university.
- With record numbers of students attending university, around 2 million high school students took 3.7 million Advanced Placement exams in 2012, trying to earn college credit. Advance Placement exams are graded on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being the best. The minimum score to earn college credit is a 3, with many universities requiring a 4 or 5 on individual exams. When taking an AP exam, correct answers obviously count toward your score, but wrong answers will knock points off your score, while answers left blank do nothing.
- Two major standardized tests that U.S. high school students take in order to get into college are the ACT and SAT. Colleges usually accept one or the other. The first is scored out of 36, while the latter is scored out of 2400. In some states, these standardized tests have been integrated into state standardized testing.
- In the UK, the dreaded E grade is much more common than the F. Again, they both mean you probably should have studied more, so there isn’t much difference between them except for preference.
- 14% of adults in the U.S. are illiterate, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. A further 29% demonstrated only a “basic” reading level.
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