Grades are a staple of American education, but they’re a fairly modern invention. The earliest formal grading emerged in 1785 when Yale University began stratifying grades into four groups: Optimi, second Optimi, Inferiores, and Perjores (roughly translating to best, second best, less good, and worse). However, these grades weren’t given in individual classes or subjects—they were assigned during senior year, as students were preparing to graduate. Rather than a measure of learning, grading in the U.S. began as a last-minute method for ranking.
It wasn’t until 1837, when Harvard began using a 100-point rubric, that the modern grading system began to take shape. At the time, the distribution of scores resembled a bell curve, with typical scores clustered around the average of 50, and scores above 75 or below 25 existing as rare events, relegated to the tails of the distribution. The new grading model posed thorny problems: As schools proliferated, there was little consensus as to what a score of 50 meant, and while a 50 in an advanced class might indicate proficiency, a 50 in a remedial course might represent only the most basic level of understanding.
After decades of experimentation, K–12 schools in the U.S. began to shift to the A–F grading system, eschewing the bell curve in favor of a simplified, five-level hierarchy that was meant to take stock of an individual’s learning, irrespective of their peers. In a class of 25 students, there was no reason why 20 of them could not receive As—or Fs. While bias could certainly creep into assessments, there was consensus that an “A” grade was superior, while a “C” grade reflected average performance. At that critical juncture of our grading history, the 100-point and A–F grading systems were independent: The former was designed to rank students within a university setting, the latter to normalize academic marks in public school settings.
The detente didn’t last. As schools sought to standardize grading further, the two systems, along with the 4.0 scale—a newcomer that emerged out of Yale’s original Latin rankings—eventually “fused together,” according to a 2013 study. “This move was slow, of course—the product of a decentralized system with few formal coordination mechanisms,” the researchers explain. But as the grading systems cycled through “mutations and resistance,” the 100-point scale wrapped itself around the other models and was pulled out of shape. The new average grade—in letters, a “C”—shifted and recentered around the 75-point mark instead of 50.
Downstream, the effects on students were mostly unanticipated.
A HISTORIC SKEW
The end result of that journey—the 100-point grading system in its current permutation—is a “badly lopsided scale that is heavily gamed against the student,” say the researchers James Carifio and Theodore Carey, who studied topics like cognitive psychology and assessment at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell. When the original 100-point scale prevailed, grades were centered around the midpoint, and a failing grade and a passing grade had equal weight. But when the grading systems merged and the centerpoint shifted upward, there was simply less area in which to succeed: Roughly 60 percent of the grading scale was now dedicated to failing marks, and the implications of a very low grade or a zero became catastrophic.
Consider the following scenario: A student gets an 82, 85, and 90 on their first three assignments—they’re a solid B student, with the potential to make a straight A. If they miss their next assignment, their average plummets to a 64. Even if they scored 90s on the next seven assignments—a clear plurality of outstanding work—they’d still end up with an 80, the equivalent of a B- or C+ in most grading systems.
In contrast, a B student receiving a zero 100 years ago would have merely dropped into the upper-40s range, an abbreviated setback that would still earn them a C, giving them ample latitude to recover.
THE ZERO ACCOUNTABILITY QUESTION
To compensate for the flaws of the 100-point grading scale, many districts now turn to minimum grading, automatically resetting zeroes to 50, for example. Critics of the approach say that no-zero policies fail to prepare kids for the real world and encourage students to coast and wait for opportune moments to buckle down. Students will inevitably put in minimal effort, the argument goes, when they know there’s a safety net and a chance to rebound in the future.
But Carifio and Carey found the opposite to be true. In a comprehensive 2015 study, they analyzed seven years’ worth of data for more than 29,000 high school students, looking at the impact that minimum grading had on test scores, grade inflation, and graduation rates. Compared with their counterparts in schools with traditional grading schemes, students who benefited from minimum grading actually put more effort into their learning, earning higher scores on state exams and graduating at higher rates.
In fact, for many students, according to the researchers, receiving a zero was demoralizing—not corrective. “The assigning of even a small number of catastrophically low grades, especially early in the marking term, before student self-efficacy can be established, can create this sense of helplessness,” Carifio and Carey explain, putting students in an impossible situation and discouraging them for the rest of the grading period. Giving students a lifeline out of a ruinous situation keeps them engaged and motivated to do better, the research suggests.
The claim about real-life norms is also dubious. There are times when deadlines must be strictly enforced, but for the most part, employers are typically forgiving of extensions and late work, recognizing that “assigned deadlines can be stressfully tight, compromising output quality,” according to a 2022 study, which also found that 53 percent of workplace deadlines were flexible. In fact, “deadline estimates are often overly optimistic,” and adhering to them too stringently can dramatically increase burnout.
SHIFTING THE CONVERSATION
Aside from mandatory minimums, there are other options that address the historical error while providing clear consequences for consistently incomplete or unsatisfactory work. For example, teachers can drop a student’s lowest grade (or both the lowest and highest grades), offer students the opportunity to make up work with or without penalties, or tweak the minimum grading policy so that it only applies to one or two assignments. Standards-based grading, which uses a 1 to 4 scale to highlight specific areas of academic and social growth, is a bigger investment but remains a viable alternative to traditional grading; portfolios give students opportunities to reflect on their work.
That’s not to say that any alternatives to the 100-point grading system are perfect. Perhaps the problem lies in grading itself, since students tend to fixate on their scores and not their learning goals. In a 2021 study, for example, researchers discovered that deprioritizing an assignment’s grade—by giving students feedback on an assignment a few days before their grade—increased performance on future assignments by two-thirds of a letter grade. “Research has shown that an excessive focus on grades can interfere with the student’s ability to self-assess—a crucial cognitive process in the feedback loop,” the researchers explain.
Middle school math teacher Crystal Frommert saw a similar pattern with her students, noticing that they were obsessed with grades, often at the cost of learning. As a minor act of resistance, Frommer doesn’t hand back a test with a grade—instead, she provides achievable feedback and then asks her students to reflect and make corrections. She’s careful to provide notes on how well they’ve learned the material but never discusses points (which are still logged and submitted to the school).
“This irritated the kids at first, but over time they began to focus on their actual performance,” writes Frommert. For students who have a burning desire to know their grade, however, she’ll schedule a conference the next day to help ensure a more productive, fruitful conversation.