This is a repost from my most recent article at Grading For Growth, which I co-author with my colleague Prof. David Clark. Here's the original. Join us there every Monday for new content about alternative grading systems! (We're taking a break until the start of the new year; new stuff coming January 9.)
Have you ever wondered how we got the “traditional” system of grading we have now? Many people assume it was handed down to us from centuries past, having stood the test of time across the entire scope of higher education. But the truth is much different.
You might be surprised to learn that what we now recognize as the “traditional” grading system — including the 4.0 GPA, the A/B/C/D/F scale, and the widespread use of points for assessments — is only about 125 years old. It is not hard-coded into the DNA of higher education itself! In fact, given that universities have been around since at least 1088 (possibly even longer than that), and formal education itself much longer, “traditional” grading doesn’t seem like that much of a tradition.
So, how did we arrive at the system commonly used today? This is a topic that David and I take up in one of the early chapters of the Grading For Growth book1 where we trace the evolution of grading from the beginnings of higher education up to the present day. In this article, I wanted to highlight a part of that story that, sadly, didn’t make it into the book. It’s about the outsized influence of one person on the development of school and grades today.
Education and grades in America, pre-1850
“Grades” as we now know them, didn’t really exist in American education prior to 1800. American universities adopted the methods of their European counterparts, meaning that students attended lectures — or not, as there was not really a requirement or even an expectation to do so — and engaged in salon-like discourses with their professors and classmates. But examinations were very infrequent. Students at the earliest universities took only a single, all-or-nothing oral exam at the very end of their studies, and it did not receive a grade. Instead, student performance on the exam was evaluated by a panel, which either agreed to let the student graduate or not.
Primary and secondary schools followed a similar path. Public schooling in the US did not become mainstream until the second half of the 19th century. Prior to that time, schools were primarily private or religious, and did what the universities were doing in terms of curriculum and evaluation. Even students in the one-room schoolhouses of that time took only a single final exam over each subject.
The evaluation practices of the different schools in America at that time were not designed to be compatible with each other. There was no way to compare the academic progress of two students from different schools, even in the same geographic area. This wasn’t necessarily a problem at that time, because students did not typically migrate between schools. But as America grew through westward expansion and the rapid increase in immigrant populations, mobility between schools became more common — and the limitations of the current models became more apparent. Suddenly, school reform was an important subject.
Horace Mann and the Prussian system
One of the most vocal reformers was Horace Mann. Born in 1796, he studied at Brown University and became a practicing lawyer in 1823, then was elected to the Massachusetts legislature in 1827 and then to the Massachusetts State Senate in 1835.
In 1837, Mann was appointed Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education. In this position, Mann became intimately familiar with the work of teachers and the need for school reform. He is said to have personally visited every school in Massachusetts to examine the school grounds. Perhaps motivated by that experience, he undertook a fact-finding tour of European schools in 1843, where he took particular interest in the Prussian school system.
Established in the late 1700s, the Prussian system was one of the first tax-funded compulsory public education systems in the world, as well as one of the most innovative. It grew out of the needs of the Prussian military, which was transitioning from a rigid command-and-control structure where troops executed orders from superiors, to a more flexible model in which soldiers made more of their own tactical decisions based on real-time battlefield situations. In order to function within such a decentralized system, the Prussian army needed soldiers who could analyze a situation and make good decisions with imperfect information and under stressful conditions. In other words, they needed educated soldiers. And to ensure every able-bodied person could attain that education, the entire Prussian educational system received an overhaul.
The existing schooling system was expanded to require all young citizens, both boys and girls, be educated by government-funded schools from the ages of 5 through 13. The eight-year course of primary education included reading, writing, music, and religious education (though a hallmark of the Prussian system was its secular approach). And among the innovations of the Prussian system was a curriculum structured around a series of incremental “grades” that allowed students to proceed at their own pace.
The structure of the Prussian system stood in contrast to the American system, which was largely uncoordinated. There was no real need for coordination prior to that time, since students rarely changed schools; and anyway record-keeping was all but impossible in many cases since student attendance was irregular and students of different ages and abilities were lumped together. And insofar as there was a system in place, it was often based on comparing students with each other. In many urban schools, students were examined, ranked against their classmates, and physically relocated in the classroom based on the results, with the top students being moved closer to the front.
Bringing the Prussian system home
Mann and his colleagues considered the Prussian system to be an upgrade and sought to institute similar reforms in America.
While many at the time believed the constant examination and ranking of students would motivate students, Mann instead believed that these practices would demotivate them. He wrote: “If superior rank at recitation be the object, then, as soon as that superiority is obtained, the spring of desire and of effort for that occasion relaxes”.2 He proposed replacing the examine-and-rank method with something familiar to us today, but unheard-of then: A series of written examinations, and monthly report cards.
The report card was to serve at least three purposes. First, they would provide a record of student progress so that the student could see their success over time. Second, they would provide parents with that information as well, and make it easier for parents to participate in their children’s education. Third, the report cards and the information they contained could serve as “an internal organizational device” as Schneider and Hutt put it, allowing schools to keep records and manage themselves.
By having stepped grades, written examinations, and report cards among other reforms, Mann hoped to transform American education from an endless demoralizing competition into a place where children could learn with each other without fear, and in which student success would be recorded in terms of carefully-curated information — a clockwork system much like the Prussian system that inspired it.
Soon, grades themselves began to take hold of higher education and made their way into secondary and primary schools. By the end of the Civil War, most schools gave grades to students. By the end of the 19th century, those grades were beginning to take the familiar form of letter grades, and then grade point averages, all awarded using written examinations graded using points. And by the early 20th century, fueled by the industrial revolution, we had essentially the system we have today.
So, we can trace some of the key components of “traditional grading” back to Horace Mann: grade levels in primary and secondary schools, written examinations, and grade reports. It would be easy to stop here and say that Horace Mann was a well-intentioned reformer whose innovations unwittingly paved the way for a system of grading and assessment in all levels of schooling that we can now recognize as irrelevant to modern education, perhaps even nonsensical and actively harmful. But I think that would miss some important lessons.
First, Mann’s reforms were legitimate improvements over what students were experiencing at the time. We can look back now at, say, the invention of the report card and wish it had never happened. But imagine schooling without report cards during that time: Kids (and their parents) had no reliable way of knowing what they had achieved or needed to achieve, or how they were growing over time. All they had was daily competitive oral exams whereby they were moved to the back of the room, or given a dunce cap, for poor performance. Grades, exams, and report cards may have mutated over time to be in opposition to student learning and growth, but it used to be worse. And perhaps giving students an explicit record of their academic work is not detrimental to motivation or learning, but a necessary feature for communicating with each other about growth.
Second, it’s important to note that traditions don’t just “happen”. Every tradition is an accumulation of choices made by people who are faced with a problem to solve3. Traditional grading, for all its flaws, was initiated to solve certain emerging and systemic problems in education, and for a while it solved those problems very well. And the system before Horace Mann, in turn, for all its flaws, solved many of the problems of the way things were before it (namely, having no educational system at all). At some point, we’ll all discover the flaws and issues of “alternative grading” and some future reformer will need to come along and start another tradition. Traditions are a choice. Do we make them with our hearts and heads in the right place?
Finally, I’m struck by just how much impact a single person can have on an entire institution. Horace Mann was one person with a passion for education reform, and through systematic inquiry and what we would today call “disruptive innovation” he changed the course of education. I bet many people out there now reading this blog, maybe you, can have a similar impact.
Note: Much of the historical content of this article is taken from an excellent paper by Schneider and Hutt.