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A to F Scale Gets Poor Marks but Is Likely to Stay

Daniel J. McMahon, principal of DeMatha Catholic High, speaks with students Amir Reda, left, and Vince Bury. Reda predicts letter grades will disappear. Bury says a new scale could provide more flexibility from student to student.
Daniel J. McMahon, principal of DeMatha Catholic High, speaks with students Amir Reda, left, and Vince Bury. Reda predicts letter grades will disappear. Bury says a new scale could provide more flexibility from student to student. (James A. Parcell - Twp)

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The first letter grade ever given in the United States, according to historical records, was a B received by a Harvard University undergraduate in 1883. There is no indication of how he felt about the grade, but that simple way of judging student work quickly became popular.

Will U.S. schools ever end their long romance with A's, B's, C's and so on? Some educators say letter grades no longer fit in a standardized information age. They say letter grades are too simplistic and vary too much from system to system, school to school and even classroom to classroom.

"I'd like to think that we will have some better form of assessing and evaluating," said Daniel J. McMahon, principal of DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville. He suggested something more descriptive, like a job evaluation.

But some educators and experts say students will be getting letter grades for many years to come, a tradition as resilient as baseball, comic strips and other 19th-century products.

"Letter grades are convenient, simple and easy to manage, store and transmit," said Dan Verner, a recently retired Fairfax County high school English teacher. "Those are important factors when dealing with masses of students."

Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said he thinks colleges also will stick with letter grades.

"This is a habit hard to break, and nothing changes fast in higher ed," he said. "High schools will keep using them if college admissions offices keep requiring them, which they likely will."

It was the colleges, after all, that started the letter grade system, according to research by Mark W. Durm, professor of psychology at Athens State University in Alabama. A 1785 diary entry reveals Yale examination grades in Latin, such as "optimi" for the highest mark. A College of William & Mary faculty report in 1817 classified students simply by numbers. The names listed under "No. 1" were "the first in their respective classes." Those under "No. 2" were "orderly, correct and attentive."

After the stray reference to a B at Harvard in 1883, the first full-scale letter grade system for which there is documented proof was adopted at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts in 1897, Durm said:

· A: excellent, equivalent to 95 to 100 percent

· B: good, 85 to 94 percent

· C: fair, 76 to 84 percent


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