History of Grades
Play • 43 min

Did you know that what we consider the “standard” letter grade system is a relatively recent phenomenon in US higher education? The history of grades and grading schemes is a long and circuitous tale that illustrates how higher education has evolved over time. From the first categorization of student learning in 1785 at Yale to the first letter grade system in 1897-1898 at Mount Holyoke, through the standardization of student records and grading schemes in the early to mid-20th century, registrars have been involved at every step of the way. This episode highlights the historical interplay of society and higher education through the lens of the student learning assessment practices, e.g. grades.  

Key Takeaways:

  • There were a variety of different approaches to assessing student learning in early US higher education. These systems coalesced around categories, ranking, and quality points to give us the standard letter grade system we know today. 
  • The enduring variance in institutional grading schemes and grading practices highlights the inherent power of the faculty at each different institution, and makes the work of the registrar critical for accurate record-keeping. 
  • Grades and grading schemes will continue to evolve and change, as external pressures (like a pandemic) necessitate new approaches to grading, and as faculty continue to explore the best, and more appropriate ways to assess and communication student learning and achievement.


Doug McKenna, University Registrar
George Mason University

Very Special Guest:

LTC (Ret.) Doug McKenna, Ph.D.

Additional Resources:

Doug McKenna - HE721 - “Making Grades” learning activity 

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