But That’s How We’ve Always Done It

The movement toward proficiency based learning/assessment and narrative assessment instead of standardized, “traditional”, grading with letters and a numeric or percentage scale continues to grow and gain ground. Among the many objections to the change is that traditional grading is familiar and easy to understand. It’s how it has always been done, therefore, everyone understands that A is very good and thing C or below is bad. 

If you dig into the history of education a bit, you will discover that traditional grading is actually pretty new. The first uses of a standardized system of ranking and grading are found in 1785 at Yale University. A tutor at Cambridge Univeristy, Willaim Farish, is reported to have used and developed a grading system in 1792. By the late 1800s more colleges were using point systems to rank or categorize their students, and by the early 1900s, elementary and high schools were using grades. 

How did teachers asses students prior to 1785? US colleges used a process modeled on practices from Oxford and Cambridge. Students attended regular lectures and engaged in a weekly discussion with their proctor, in writing and in person. A student completed a course when the proctor, and sometimes a panel of other professors, decided they had demonstrated an adequate mastery of the subject. 

I find a certain amount of irony in this. The system that everyone wants to keep using has only been around for a little over 100 years, where the system that people don’t trust because it is something new and different, is actually a time tested system. Cambridge University was founded in 1231 and Oxford in 1248. 

It is also interesting to note that the wide adopted use of a standardized grading system coincides with the industrial revolution and an increased number of students due to immigration and  compulsory attendance laws. Education was now something available to all, teachers had a system to quickly assess a large number of students, but the value of a personal experience focused on learning was lost. 

Source articles:

Answers.yahoo.com “Who Invented the Grading System for Schools in Our Country?”

Ehow.com “History of Grading Systems” by Nicole Lassahn

Slate.com “How Come Schools Assign Grades A, B, C, D, and F-But not E?” By Brian Palmer

Wikipedia.org “Grading”

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