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
* D: barely passed, 75 percent
* E: failed, below 75 percent
The percentage equivalents were tougher than most systems today. The next year, Mount Holyoke tightened them further, making a B from 90 to 94 percent, a C 85 to 89 percent, a D 80 to 84 percent, an E 75 to 79 percent, and adding a sixth grade, the soon-to-be-famous F, which was anything below 75.
College students today are still comfortable seeing these letters, whether on paper or computer screens. And many say they don't see much reason to follow such letter-grade-abolishing schools as the New College of Florida in Sarasota and Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., which use narrative evaluations to assess students.
"An A at one school might be an A-minus or B-plus at another school," said Lauren Reliford, a junior at Boston College, but "for the most part, people all over this nation understand that an A is much, much better than an F."
Still, Michael A. Durso, principal of Springbrook High School in the Colesville area, said schools have been inconsistent in their use of letter grades to determine class rank, valedictorian selection and athletic eligibility. "We are all over the landscape, and in my opinion, this causes the continued erosion of confidence in public schools."
That erratic letter grading system still gets less criticism than the standardized tests used to assess students and schools, mainly because the machine-scored exams lack the human touch. "The standardized tests present an impersonal but universally known target," said Robert W. Snee, principal of George Mason High School in Falls Church. "A single teacher is only grading 125 students this year, and she has a personal relationship with each one of them."
Some students said they envision an end to the reign of the classroom teacher and the grade book. Amir Reda, a junior at DeMatha, said letter grades will disappear "for the same reason that many teaching styles that were used a century ago have been disbanded." His classmate Vince Bury said, "We should be able to develop a new grading scale that provides for more flexibility from student to student."
Experts are less sure. Finn said the more likely outcome is that letter grades will stay but continue to be inflated and trivialized because of what he called "the therapeutic ethic, the aversion to competition, anxiety about self-esteem and simple marketing pressures."
Verner, like many teachers, said he does not celebrate letter grades' resilience. "I think they are an abomination, which is probably ironic since I spent 32 years dishing them out."
He said he would prefer that high school students applying to college send portfolios of their work, rather than grade transcripts. He said he had fond memories of an ungraded program at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., which he attended in the late 1960s.
"We had written evaluations for each course," he said. "When I transferred to American University, I think they didn't know what to do to convert those to letter grades, so they converted them all to A's. Lucked out again."
Jason Busby, a history and government teacher at Agoura High School in Agoura Hills, Calif., said, "Letter grades are hopelessly inaccurate and lack meaningful feedback for the student, but students and parents are just as reluctant to listen to or read long, drawn-out analyses of students' work as teachers are to deliver it. Grades are simple. Grades are easy. Grades are understood because parents had them when they were students.
"Ask any number of parents and students what they are hoping to get out of a given class and they will tell you, 'A good grade,' " Busby said. "Ask them, as I do every year of my students, if they would accept an A at the cost of learning nothing about the subject in class. . . . The answer is 99 percent yes."