Making the Grade

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What's worse than driving in heavy traffic to work? Driving the opposite direction to take my daughter to school (early for a meeting) and then heading to work.

Not that I'm unhappy about it. I think it was Math Club this time. I would like to say that we had a deep, meaningful father/daughter discussion. But other than sharing the miseries of the latestReport Card almost-but-not-quite Clemson vs. GA Tech game, there was only trivial chit-chat about marching band, working late on her essays, and grades.

Back in the day, to get an "A," I had to score 94-100, not like today's overly generous 90-100 scale. She's got it easy! And then somehow or another, we got to the question of how letter grades originated.

Instead of A through E or F (a regional variance in the U.S.), Why not:

    • E for Excellent
    • G for Good
    • A for Average
    • B for Below Expectations
    • F for Fail (well, at least one letter makes sense)

E-G-A-B-F looks almost like a musical chord sequence, an added plus.

But really, why not just numbers? Who started this letter system? I'm curious to a point. I'm not going to the Library of Congress, or even the Emory University Library, to delve into these haunting questions that preoccupy my mind. So, it's off to Google, Wiki, and even Bing, all conveniently located at my fingertips (additional points for being "green" in this pursuit).

Several sources point back to William Farish, an undistinguished professor at Cambridge University (in England in case you're thinking of one down the street). Reading through the editorial opinion and fact is difficult, but it basically goes like this.

For thousands of years, education was not measured by letter grades, numerical assessments, or the worthiness of whichever Division 1-A University one attended (okay, or even those that don't play football). In fact, there was not a grading system at all. One's Curriculum Vitae did not point towards a resume, a degree, or test results, but rather they were pointed specifically to the name of the teacher under whom one studied. It was a mentoring process, whether an academic pursuit or a skill.

At some point, perhaps mutually agreed upon, the student would leave the mentor and begin his own pursuits. Institutionally, at some unknown time, pass/fail systems were established, but not measured in the sense of the testing done today. This mentoring approach, in consideration of the potential increase in the quality of learning experience, is laudable, but it's also terribly inefficient.

And so it is said that professors in the late 1700's were not paid by salaries but rather by the number of students that they taught. Mr. Farish, by implementing a grading system, could significantly increase the number of students without all that wasted time of getting to know students personally, be it their interests, aptitudes, difficulties, or abilities to apply rather than parrot what was taught. (Whew, confirms that parrot is a recognized verb).

In a manner of speaking, Mr. Farish implemented Henry Ford's production line concepts to the process of education, notably a century earlier. A smart person might have applied this new and improved methodology to manufacturing processes before Mr. Ford, but it might be considered that the dumbing down of students began around 1792, that fateful year of good ol' Professor Farish. In any case, the grading process was quickly and widely adopted.

Well, that's one story.

Much better documented is a 1935 work of Mary Lovett Smallwood that indicates that grading to differentiate students began on the American side of the pond, specifically at Yale. She referenced Yale's President Stiles, in a 1785 diary.

President Stiles wrote that 58 students were present at an examination, and they were graded as follows: “Twenty Optimi, sixteen second Optimi, 12 Inferiores (Boni), ten Pejores” (Stiles, 1901, vol. 3). In all probability, these may have been the very first collegiate “grades” given in the United States.

Yale took the initiative in formulating a scale. Smallwood quoted the following from the Book of Averages — Yale College: “Record of Examinations,” 1813 — 1839: Rules respecting this Book and its records, 1. This book shall be kept with the Senior Tutor of the College, whose duty it shall (be) to see that the following rules are carried into effect. 2. The average result of the examination of every student in each class shall be recorded in this book by the Senior Tutor of the class.

(click HERE for source - an interesting read if you want to read more)

The above linked article indicates that Mount Holyoke first established a letter grading system in 1897. (Notably, just as Eve first ate of the fruit and offered it to Adam, it would appear that letter grades came from a Women's college, thus absolving Mr. Farish, who no doubt saw that it was pleasing to the eye.) We'll probably never know why adjectives used to describe progress, with accompanying acronyms, lost out to the Alphabetical system by which we all pass or fail. Homer Simpson Beer

One bothersome question resolved. I'll give myself a "B" for "Beer" and go watch college football.

1 comment :

  1. Enjoyable and interesting read. Writing a blog is often suggested to writers as one way to become better writers. (That whole, practice makes perfect thing.) Reading your blog today I noticed improvements in your writing in several places. Your beat moves well, so your timing works better. Your humor is more concise and tighted to get the point across quickly (and funnier). Well done.
    I'd give you a grade, but I don't believe in them. I did once get a grade of "BS" on a college paper, but that's another story. Literally.