E Is for Fail

How come schools assign grades of A, B, C, D, and F—but not E?

The school board in Mount Olive, N.J., will get rid of the D grade starting this fall, in an effort to raise the standards for graduation. From now on, any student whose average grade falls below a 70 will simply fail. How did we end up with an A-B-C-D-F grading system, anyway? Did schools ever assign a grade of E?

Yes. The earliest record of a letter-grade system comes from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts in 1897. (There is a passing reference in the Harvard archives to a student receiving a B grade in 1883, but no evidence of a complete A-through-F system.) The lowest grade at Mount Holyoke was an E, which represented failure. The rest of the scale was a bit irregular, with A representing scores between 95 and 100, while B and C each stood for 10-point ranges. Students could get a D only with a score of precisely 75, with anything below that receiving the dreaded E. One year later, administrators changed the failing grade to F and tweaked the other letters. The new scale offered better symmetry, since each grade represented five points, with scores below 75 resulting in failure. (The E was promoted to cover scores from 75 to 79.) Over the next two decades, variations on the letter-grade system spread across the country and into primary and secondary schools. It’s hard to put a date on the end of the E, but it was gone from most colleges by 1930. Apparently, some professors worried that students would think the grade stood for “excellent,” since F stood for “failure.” That said, there’s no evidence of similar concerns over, say, B—which might just as well stand for “brilliant” as “bungled.”

Grading of any sort is a relatively modern innovation. Yale may have been the first university in the United States to issue grades, with students in 1785 receiving the Latin equivalents of best, worse, and worst. Prior to that time, U.S. colleges employed the Oxford and Cambridge model, in which students attended regular lectures and engaged in a weekly colloquy with their proctor, in writing and in person. The students were determined to have completed the course when the proctor, and sometimes a panel of other professors, decided they had demonstrated an adequate mastery of the subject. There was no grade. The only way for a potential employer to compare students’ credentials was on the basis of letters of recommendation.

During the 19th century, universities tried all sorts of different systems. Yale moved between four- and nine-point numerical scales. Harvard tinkered with 20- and 100-point scales before the faculty decided the best it could do was divide students into five “classes,” with the lowest class failing the course. William and Mary used four groupings and assigned descriptors to guide faculty in classifying students, using phrases like “orderly, correct, and attentive” for one group and “they have learnt little or nothing” for another. The idea of grading, in some fashion, quickly spread outside of U.S. schools. There is some indication that Herbert Mumford, the Illinois professor who proposed a grading system for beef in 1902, took his inspiration from the educators.

It’s no coincidence that a single system was in place by the early 20th century. Schools at the time were bursting at the seams, given the sudden increases in immigration and the rise of compulsory attendance laws. Teachers and administrators needed an efficient, standardized system for testing and evaluating large numbers of students. (Another marvel of school efficiency, the multiple-choice exam, was invented at the beginning of the century, as well.)

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Explainer thanks Cathy N. Davidson of Duke University.

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