Where Does Grading Come From?

This is a series of blogposts meant for students who are in courses using grading contracts of some kind to determine their final course grades, or those who just want to understand better what grades are, what they do in classrooms, and how they effect learning. This is the first post in a series of five blogposts meant to address questions about grading and grading contracts. If you're a teacher (or an inquisitive student), you might look at my Labor-Based Grading Contracts Resources page. 

This series is a collaboration with the really awesome podcast, Pedagogue  (@_Pedagogue_) with Shane Wood. You can listen to me reading this blogpost or use the widget below. But maybe you just want to read it on your own below, or follow along.  

***

Q1. Where does the practice of grading come from and what does that history tell us about today’s grading practices in schools? 

The Beginnings of Grading

It may seem obvious why we have grades in schools and colleges. They provide a way to tell us how well we’re doing in a class or in school more generally. But how well do grades actually explain your learning in your courses? How descriptive are they? How exactly do they help you as a student understand your strengths and weaknesses in any performance, or how you might improve or change things, say in a writing course? How well do grades help you develop a complex practice such as writing or communication? If grades don’t offer you good answers to any of these questions, then why do we have them in the first place, and why do some of us think grades do answer these questions?

Grading is a technology. Like all technologies, it has biases built into it. Today, we inherit many of those biases from elite colleges’ early uses of grading systems. Perhaps the most dangerous bias in grading is its inherent ranking of people and what that ranking suggests not just about what students have learned in classrooms but their very worth as people in society.

The history of grades, which is not very old, can explain not just where grades come from but why we have them in our educational systems, what we think they do there, and the biases that travel with all grading systems. This history may surprise you, and it suggests that grades are not as useful or meaningful in schools as we often think they are. 

Today in schools, standards of language are closely tied to the practice of grading students. In fact, standards and grading are almost synonymous. If you are going to grade people, you need a standard to determine what makes an A, B, C, etc. But grades and their standards are not the same things. Believe it or not, the first instances of grading students didn’t use standards as we know them today, ones that are about cognitive skills. 

Grading as a practice of ranking students by some judgement of performance comes from elite colleges on the east coast, such as Harvard, Yale, and William and Mary. Their original purpose was never about teaching or marking how much a student learned in a course. Grading represented something else. 

For the first several hundred years at Harvard, the first American college, students were ranked by social class standing of their families. This seemed perfectly logical to those who were attending college at that time. Technologies of ranking and grading students, while they didn’t always look like what we have today, did intend to rank and categorize groups of students based on social worth or social standing of their families. 

Where did this kind of social ranking come from? Those who invented the first grading scales and processes came out of a culture and schools in England that assumed a natural social ranking of people. They took for granted that some students were better than other students because they were born into “better” families. These were vital things to keep track of, they thought, because one’s social standing indicated one’s privilege, merit, and the future positions and jobs that person would assume as their right and responsibility. In many ways, merit and social standing were synonymous. A grade could indicate these things.

Keep in mind that Harvard was founded in 1636 and opened its doors to students in 1638. Its initial faculty came from Oxford and Cambridge in England. In fact, Harvard College was named after the Cambridge man, John Harvard, who donated his library and some of his land to establish the college.

To learn more about early grading at Harvard and other places, see Mary Lovett Smallwood, An Historical Study of Examinations and Grading Systems in Early American Universities: A Critical Study of the Original Records of Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Mount Holyoke, and Michigan from Their Founding to 1900. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935); and Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner, “Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently),” CBE—Life Sciences Education, Vol. 13, (Summer 2014), pp. 159–166.  

In the same fashion as those English colleges, Harvard was meant to develop the elite young men of colonial New England in order for them to take their places as clergy and government officials. These students were the ones destined by birth to rule the colonies. So ranking students’ by social standing was something these early professors were accustomed to since those professors all came from similar elite colleges in England, a country where social class standing was just as, if not more, important than one’s economic standing. 

All of the grading practices that may have occurred in the first centuries of American higher education are not clearly known. But the first known instance of grading in the ways we do it today may have been in 1785. At that time, Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale (seen in the image) created a four category scale that is similar to the A-F scale most schools use now (see also "History of the Modern Grading System"). The Yale scale was based on Latin terms:

  • Optimi (best)
  • Second Optimi (second best)
  • Inferiores (lower)
  • Perjores (unknown but clearly the lowest)

However, giving students letter or number grades on assignments, or even assigning final course grades, was not something that any college or school did with regularity or consistency until around the end of the 19th century -- that is, just before 1900. And even then, it was not a universal practice. 

It wasn’t until 1886 that Harvard professors began placing students into five numerical categories, or classes of students: class I, II, III, IV, and V. The first four categories designated some version of passing, while class V identified not passing. But even this simple system appeared to be unnecessary for Harvard professors. By 1895, Harvard moved to an even simpler three category system: “failed,” “passed,” and “passed with distinction.” 

In Harvard grade reports sent to parents during the 19th century, students’ grades identified the groups of similar students they were in. So a report card would show by subject the class (I, II, III, IV, or V) that the student in question was in. An individual’s grades were very much connected to the group of students that the student in question seemed to fit into. 

This orientation of gathering students into similarly meritorious groups of students seems to be a carry-over from earlier systems that were based on social class standings. In other words, what seems most important in these early grading systems was to know the group a student fit into. This was supposed to tell you something about the worth and capabilities of all the students in each group. 

But why did grading students by their so-called merits become more important by the end of the 19th century? In large part, elite colleges like Harvard and Yale were getting bigger just as the nation was also getting bigger. That is, there were more potential college students, so more students were enrolling or trying to get into colleges. Elite colleges, invested in their social elitism, didn’t really want this, or rather, they didn’t want certain kinds of people in these elite places. 

Grading offered a way to help identify who was acceptable and who was not, even among those accepted into those places. One thing to notice about Harvard’s grading, was that most of the grades available were some version of passing, of being okay, proficient. This suggests a bias, and it’s not one about being accurate or precise in how much or how well a student knows or learned something. It’s a bias about what the grader and college already think of the groups of students they are grading, and what college is meant to provide those groups. 

Today, our grading systems still contain many of these old biases. This is why we care about a student’s GPA, why we think it says something about their potential to do something else in the future, say succeed in graduate school or do well in a job. But what the early part of the history of grading in colleges shows us is that grading systems started as ranking systems, ranking students not so much by their merit but by their social standing and assumed worth to society. Grading assumes that we can rank everyone along the same scale in any domain of learning and life. Grading is not a natural or neutral practice. It’s an artificial and political practice, one that requires the grader to use their standard of things and their judgments of students meeting that standard. Grading may look a little different today, but it contains similar biases as it always has. 

Grading to Build A Growing Nation

By the turn of the twentieth century, most U.S. public schools had become compulsory, that is, mandatory. Massachusetts, the state where Harvard sits, was the first to pass compulsory school laws in 1852, but they already had a similar law on the books since 1647, when they were a British colony. That first education law was called, the "Old Deluder Satan Law," and it was mostly about making sure people could read and write in order to read the Bible and not be tricked by the Devil. As the law's opening statement explains, "that old deluder, Satan," might "keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures." 

Most states followed Massachusetts’ lead. This meant more and more students could qualify to go to college, and more students began going to college, or trying to get in by the end of the 19th century. But from its beginnings in the colonies of America, schools at all levels focused on making good English Christians in a hostile colonial New England, where the Devil lurked everywhere. Perhaps there's no better example of these anxieties, and criticism, of Puritanism in early America as in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1835 short story, "Young Goodman Brown." 

By 1900, there were too many students in the existing schools and college systems, systems that were never built for such numbers. Schools were likely getting crowded. Grading those students based on merit came at a time when the fields of statistics and psychological measurement were developing. These fields were gaining strength, and had as their central concerns engineering societies and controlling populations in a new and growing nation with a new growing middle class and a firmly established elite Protestant class.

Between 1860 and 1930, ranking people numerically was about making America great by grouping people for particular purposes, such as deciding who was most fit to be full citizens, who should take on critical jobs, and who should have babies. We’re talking about eugenics, state enforced sterilization laws, intelligence testing that led to the growth of the asylum systems in the nineteen century, and other projects based on White racial supremacy. 

Oregon illustrates well the anxieties in the nation over education and citizenship at this critical time when grading was established as something we do in schools. Oregon did not pass a compulsory school law until 1922, informally called the “Oregon School Law.” The law mandated that all 8 to 16 year olds must attend Oregon public schools. This law was really meant to close down private Catholic schools and convert foriegn-born Catholic immigrants into “Americans,” that is, Protestant Americans. 

While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1925 that the law was unconstitutional, this law illustrates a larger national anxiety around who an “American” really should be and how they become so. Class, race, religion, and language were markers in people that produced this national anxiety by seeming to mark lower or higher merit and qualities in different people. Schools and colleges were understood as one cure for this problem, as they always had been for other social ills, such as the Devil's influence. 

Schools were citizen-building factories. Grading was the way to manage all those diverse students and produce the correct kind of citizens. At the time, many students were seen as not meritorious because they were not yet White enough. They were immigrants, Jews, and Catholics, many of whom didn’t speak England-inspired English, and didn't come from England. One example of this U.S. anxiety can be seen in an infamous anti-Irish political cartoon of 1889 (see image) in the popular magazine Puck

Between 1886 and 1925, 13 million new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe flooded into the nation, many of them were Catholic. Professor Ellwood Cubberley of Stanford, who specialized in educational administration and later would be dean of the School of Education at Stanford, offered a common way many understood these new immigrants. He describes them in his 1909 book on education in the U.S. Professor Cubberley calls the new immigrants “illiterate, docile, lacking in self-reliance and initiative and not possessing Anglo-Teutonic conceptions of law, order and government.” He concludes that these new immigrants will “dilute tremendously our national stock and … corrupt our civic life.” 

To read more on the "Oregon School Law," Cubberley, and 19th and 20th century immigration and schooling, see Lloyd P. Jorgenson, “The Oregon School Law of 1922: Passage and Sequel," The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Oct., 1968), pp. 455-466; and David R. Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Become White, The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs, (New York: Basic Books, 2018, originally 2005).

Cubberley’s racist ideas were not original or new. They were commonplace. In 1870, Francis Amasa Walker, an economist and statistician who headed the U.S. Census Bureau and was a Boston elite who later became the President of MIT, railed against Catholics and Irish, and against the eastern and southern European immigrants coming to America. Through his census data, Walker saw these new immigrants lowering the birth rates of native born Americans. These new immigrants were bad for the U.S. as a nation, he thought. While they might not be Black or Asian, which were also undesirable, these new immigrants were not English White. Most didn’t speak England-English, and too many of them were not Protestant.

At this moment in U.S. history, merit wasn’t simply about one’s social standing or family background, it was also about one’s racial and language backgrounds. Merit was in many ways synonymous with one’s perceived race, language practices, and the values and characteristics that allegedly went along with those dimensions of people. The new immigrants at the time were clearly racialized as not-quite White, not meritorious, but could be if they were educated, stripped of their Catholicism or Judaism, and took on the British-influenced English language of the U.S.

Additional pressures, particularly in newly established states like Oregon, created more need for grades in schools. The quickly expanding U.S. needed a larger managerial class, a middle class, and more farmers and technicians. They needed more compulsory public schools and more college students. To address these needs, the Morrill Act of 1862 established land grant colleges, such as Oregon State University. It gave “public” lands previously occupied by indigenous tribes and Native Americans to states and territories of the U.S. in order to finance or establish colleges and universities for this new White middle class. 

This group of people would be trained in these new land-grant colleges in “agriculture and the mechanic arts.” The purpose of such colleges was White racial nation building. As you might expect, the first Morrill Act did not account for racial discrimination. It essentially allowed it. The second Morrill Act in 1890 did prohibit it, sort of. It had a provision that as long as there was another option for Black students in the state that was funded in a “just” way, which did not necessarily mean equal, things were okay. Think of it as a version of “separate and unequal.” The second Morrill Act provided for many historically Black colleges and universities we have today. 

While these new land-grant colleges were being established, other anxieties in the country made things like grades important to have as a way to manage groups of students and prioritize some groups over others. How would one know, for instance, the merit of a newer immigrant student from a student whose parents and perhaps grandparents were native to the U.S., meaning they were likely from England, not southern or eastern Europe? What this question really asks is how close to Protestant English is this new immigrant student, who is likely Italian, Greek, Hungarian, or Polish and who may be Jewish or Catholic. Ranking in schools could offer a way to answer this question, since it mimicked the traditions of social and other rankings of people, usually by assumed inherent traits or capacities, which proliferated during the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

To illustrate how important race was to merit and one’s fitness for citizenship in the U.S, consider Oregon again. In 1850, nine years before the territory was a state, the Donation Land Act granted Whites exclusive rights to own land in the territory. Over 80 years before the 1922 Oregon School Law, the Oregon territorial government and its residents were increasingly worried about Black residents coming in. Despite not being able to own land, Black residents had been excluded from the territory and later the state by Oregon’s numerous Black Exclusion Laws (see also Black Laws of Oregon, 1844-1857; and Exclusion Laws). These started as territorial laws in 1844, which by default made Blacks and other minoritized groups, such as Chinese and Japanese, not potential students in the state’s schools and colleges. From its beginnings, Oregon was established as a White territory and state

In fact, section 35 of the Bill of Rights of the Oregon state constitution, ratified by voters in 1857, had officially made Oregon a “no Black” resident and no race-mixing state. While in 1925 the Oregon legislature repealed this section of the constitution, and that decision was ratified by voters in 1926, it explains why to this day Oregon has so few Black residents, currently around 2 percent. Oregon has been a hostile place for Black people, even after the repeal of section 35 of its Bill of Rights. But it wasn’t alone. Oregon was following the lead of similar laws in Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Ohio, among other states (see also Systemic Inequality: Displacement, Exclusion, and Segregation). These were the places its White residents were coming from. 

Schools and colleges in the new states of the West, like Oregon, were the primary places to make the new nation and its citizens, at least the really important ones, the citizens who would make important decisions, run things, and lead the country. Ranking these students along their abilities in language and other areas seemed important in order to find the best and brightest among the racially White and almost White. Grades were an important part of this gatekeeping since they ranked students by how English and Protestant they were in pseudo-scientific and seemingly precise terms. Numbers, categories, and names sounded scientific, especially since they were coming from White authorities. Race and immigration status were tangled up in these ranking systems that all schools and colleges participated in too.  

Oregon history indicates the racial, language, and religious anxieties of Oregon citizens and how important they felt such dimensions were to being an Oregonian and an American. There was nothing special about Oregon. The White people in that state reflected larger national anxieties and racism. As Cubberley’s comments illustrate, most people at the time assumed that traits and behaviors of people, just like social family status, were inherited or at least a deep part of one’s background. Race was understood as a good way to identify a person’s capabilities and potential in society, just as language and religion were. No one was arguing against Professor Cubberley’s racist statements about the new immigrants. He was stating the common sense of the time. And it took more than 80 years to repeal Black Exclusion laws in Oregon. 

Grades were a part of the systems that managed and excluded people in society, which began in elite colleges of the East coast, and multiplied in compulsory schools and land-grant colleges in the latter part of the 19th century. The grading of people in other ways flourished at this same time, a moment when the solutions to engineering a better society were dominated by voices like Cubberley, Francis Galton, and Lothrop Stoddard. These men advocated for eugenics, racial cleansing, and White racial supremacy. 

So, where do grades come from and what do they teach us about today’s grading? They come from a short history of managing people for very particular, elite White supremacist reasons. Their purposes were to exclude some people from elite places in society, and designate some places for the Whitest and most Christian of people. Their purposes were to rank people in ways that matched the elitist and racist biases of those doing the ranking and engineering of society, the ones who ended up benefitted most from the grading systems. Their purposes were to help build a particular kind of homogeneous, White, monolingual, England-English speaking, Protestant America. 

And today, it is very hard to recognize these biases because grades in writing classrooms have been with us for as long as we can remember. And yet, they are a relatively new invention in schools. Their biases for ranking people along social, racial, linguistic, and other dimensions in us are not simply an old fashioned and obsolete way of understanding people in society. These biases are harmful to a more democratic and equitable society and classroom. In short, grading has always participated in White racial  supremacy and elitism. Classrooms today can do much better. 

---

This blog is offered for free in order to engage language and literacy teachers of all levels in antiracist work and dialogue. The hope is that it will help raise enough money to do more substantial and ongoing antiracist work by funding the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment, housed at Oregon State University. Read more about the endowment on my endowment page. Please consider donating to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.

Comments