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Academic grading in the United States

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Academic grading in the United States

Academic grading in the United States commonly takes on the form of five letter grades. Traditionally, the grades are A, B, C, D, and F—A being the highest and F, denoting failure, the lowest.

Numerical and letter grades

The typical grades given in a course are (from highest to lowest) A, B, C, D, and F. Sometimes these are as A+, A, A−, B+, B, B−, C+, C, C−, D+, D, D−, and F;. D− is also sometimes omitted, under the assumption that anything less than a D is by definition failure. In primary and secondary schools, it is also uncommon for a D to be considered passing, so a rule of thumb could be that anything below a 60 is failure. In college and universities, a D is considered to be an unsatisfactory passing grade; the student gains credit for the class but cannot move on to more advanced classes until a C or better is obtained.

The following are two examples of typical and popular systems for converting course averages of numerical percentage scores on tests and assignments into letter grades, commonly used in American high schools. [1][2]
Percentage Letter Grade Common Meaning Numeric Grade
90-100 A Excellent 4.0
80-89 B Good 3.0
70-79 C Average 2.0
60-69 D Difficulties 1.0
0-59 F Failing 0

How grades are assigned to students

Most teachers construct an organized system for evaluating student work.

In a typical points-based system each question in every assignment is assigned a certain number of points. A simple homework question is usually worth one point and a lengthy project such as an essay is worth many more points. The points for a large project in turn may be further divided into smaller areas for evaluation (this is called a "rubric"): ten points for writing the correct length of an essay, five points for a well-written introduction, five points for spelling and grammar, ten points for reasoning, and so forth. The final grade for the course is calculated as a percentage of points earned out of points possible.

In a percentage-based system, each assignment regardless of size, type, or complexity, is given a percentage score: eight correct answers out of ten is a score of 80%. The overall grade for the class is then typically weighted so that the final grade represents a stated proportion of different types of work. For example, daily homework may be counted as 50% of the final grade, chapter quizzes may count for 20%, the comprehensive final exam may count for 20%, and a major project may count for the remaining 10%.

In elementary school, grades may represent rewards from teachers "for being friendly, prepared, compliant, a good school citizen, well organized and hard-working" rather than mastering the subject material.[3] Schools in the United States have been accused of using academic grades to penalize students for being bored, uncooperative or for talking out of turn. Usually this behavior leads to poor or non-existent studying habits which most likely are to blame for their grades. Also some teachers use Self- and Peer-Assessment to evaluate some of a student's work.

Standards-based grading

With the adoption of standards-based education, most states have created examinations in which students are compared to a standard of what educators, businesspeople, parents, and other stakeholders have determined to be what every student should know and be able to do. Students are graded as exceeding, meeting, or falling below the standard. The advantage is that students are not compared against each other, and all have the opportunity to pass the standard. However, the standard is typically set at a level that is substantially higher than previous achievement, so that a relatively high percentage of students fail at least some part of the standards in the first year, including an especially high percentage non-college bound students. Though the passage rates for all groups rise as teachers adapt to the new standards, the failure ratio of African-American, Latino, and Native American minorities remains higher than that of white students, whose failure rate in turn is higher than that of Asian-American students.

As an instrument of systemic reform, the tests are targeted to items and skills not currently in the curriculum to promote adoption of methods such as constructivist mathematics, inquiry-based science, and problem solving.

Grades can be enhanced by extra credits, awarded where students undertake optional work, additional to their compulsory school work.[4]

For an example of standard-based grading, see The 1-2-3-4 System, below.

Rank-based grading

Grading on a curve is any system wherein the group performance is used to moderate evaluation; it need not be strictly or purely rank-based.

In the most extreme form, students are ranked and grades are assigned according to a student's rank, placing students in direct competition with one another.

Grade percentage of students
receiving grade
A top 7%
B next 24%
C middle 38%
D next 24%
F bottom 7%

One model uses percentages derived from a normal distribution model of educational performance. The top grade, A, is given here for performance that exceeds the mean by +1.5 standard deviations, a B for performance between +0.5 and +1.5 standard deviations above the mean, and so on.[5] Regardless of the absolute performance of the students, the best score in the group receives a top grade, and the worst score receives a failing grade.

Rank-based grading is popular among some American educators, usually under the euphemism of grade rationing. The arguments for grade-rationing are that:

  • Grade inflation, which is a serious problem in education in which most students receive high grades, is impossible in a rank-based system. Historical measures of performance in the subject matter may no longer apply, as human knowledge has increased substantially over time. Rank-based grading compares current students to each other, rather than to a standard that may have been set decades before.
  • Rank-based grading may push classes to their greatest performance potential by appealing to their competitive instincts.
  • Rank-based grading shows how the student compares to other students, who all had the same instructor with the same lessons and homework during the same time period. If grades are meant to represent the student's relative ability to learn, rather than to certify that the student knows and can do certain things, then rank-based grading shows clear superiority in methodology to non-curved methods of grading. However, if the purpose of grading is purely to indicate abilities learned, then a non-ranked system is more appropriate.
  • As many corporations used rank-based evaluation measures, sometimes even related to termination (see: rank and yank) such grading prepares students for the corporate world. By limiting success and recognition to the top-performing students, the grading system becomes a relevant measure of student performance in relation to their peers. In this way, rank-based grading prevents the illusion that students are competitive in areas in which they are actually only competent.

The arguments against rank-based grading are similar:

  • Rank-based grading only measures performance relative to a given group, but not the real achievements of a given student. A student with moderate skills could be the best of a bad group, or the worst of a good group. For example in a generally good class the pressure to assign grades along the curve would produce an artificial 7% of F-students, although all students actually performed quite well. This also works the other way round: in a class with generally bad performance the students whose performances are not totally bad would be singled out to form an artificial group of A-students, although in another context they would never get these grades.
  • There is no actual evidence that a given group really performs along the normal curve. The distribution may not match the pattern at all.
  • Rank-based grades become meaningless when taken out of the context of a given class or school. To understand what a rank-based grade indicates, it is necessary to understand the overall performance of the entire group on an absolute scale.

Grade point average

The grade point average (GPA) is a number that represents the average of a student's grades during their time at an institution. Usually it is weighted by number of credits given for the enrolled course.[6]

Most high schools and nearly all colleges in the United States use a four-point system. Under this system, the maximum grade point average is 4.0, which is equivalent to receiving an A in every course.

Numerical values are applied to grades as follows:

  • A = 4
  • B = 3
  • C = 2
  • D = 1
  • F = 0

This allows grades to be easily averaged. Additionally, many schools add .33 for a + grade and subtract .33 for a − grade. Thus, a B+ yields a 3.33 whereas an A– yields a 3.67. [1] A+s, if given, are usually assigned a value of 4.0 (equivalent to an A) due to the common assumption that a 4.00 is the best possible grade-point average, although 4.33 is awarded at some institutions. In some places, .25 or .3 instead of .33 is added for a + grade and subtracted for a − grade. Other institutions maintain a mid grade and award .5 for the grade. For example, an AB would receive a 3.5 grade point and a BC would receive a 2.5 grade point.

The industry standard for graduation from undergraduate institutions is a minimum 2.0 average. Most graduate schools have required a 3.0 grade point average since 1975 (the transition began two decades earlier), but some schools still have 2.75 as their pass standard. Some doctoral programs do not have a formal pass standard, but it is unlikely that they would retain a student who is doing work below 'B' quality.

Most American law schools require no more than a 2.0 grade point average to qualify for the professional doctorate in law. This is because law school grades are usually based on a strict bell curve system which typically results in the failure of 10-30% of first year students. A few law schools require 2.3 or 2.5 for post-doctoral degrees, such as the American LL.M. or S.J.D. degrees. Regular graduate schools have commonly eliminated the D grade because anything below a C is considered failing.

Weighted GPA

Some high schools, to reflect the varying skill required for different level courses and to discourage students from selecting courses that are considered a source of easy 'A's, will give higher numerical grades for difficult courses, often referred to as a weighted GPA. For example, two common conversion systems used in honors and advanced placement courses are:

  • A = 5.0 or 4.5
  • B = 4 or 3.5
  • C = 3 or 2.5
  • D = 2 or 1.5
  • E/F = 0[7]

Denver Public Schools uses a different system in honors and AP courses to get weighted GPA values; the scale is as follows: A = 5.2 A- = 4.77 B+ = 4.33 B = 3.9 B- = 3.47 C+ = 3.0 C = 2.6 C- = 2.17 D = 1.3 F = 0.0

Another policy commonly used by 4.0-scale schools is to mimic the eleven-point weighted scale (see below) by adding a .33 (one third of a letter grade) to an honors or advanced placement class. (For example, a B in a regular class would be a 3.0, but in an honors or AP class it would become a B+, or 3.33).

Sometimes the 5-based weighting scale is used for AP courses and the 4.6-based scale for honors courses, but often a school will choose one system and apply it universally to all advanced courses. A small number of high schools use a 5 point scale for Honors courses, a 6 point scale for AP courses, and/or a 3 point scale for courses of below average difficulty.

Eleven-point system

A few high schools in the United States use an eleven-point system. Numerical values are applied to grades as follows:

Very few American high schools use a twelve-point system, which differs from the above only in using the grade A+, to which the value 12.0 is applied.

The 1-2-3-4 system

Some school districts use a 1-2-3-4 rating system for grades at the Elementary (K-5) level, notably many California school districts including The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) who switched with the class of 2000. The four-point scale more clearly indicates proficiency levels in core subjects by segmenting students who are proficient (4&3) and ready to advance, from those who are not meeting all required standards (2&1) and should not advance. Most notably this removes the "C" rating which did not clearly partition students who should advance from those who should not.[2]

Percentage Grade/Mark Assigned Meaning Numeric Grade
90-100 4 Advanced, exceeds standards 4.0
80-89 3 Meets standards 3.0
70-79 2 Partially proficient 2.0
0-60 1 Not proficient 1.0

The E-S-N-U system

At one time (until roughly the mid-20th Century), the most popular grading system in the United States used four letters, which ranked, in descending order:

  • E (excellent)
  • S (satisfactory)
  • N (needs improvement; NI was also used interchangeably)
  • U (unsatisfactory)

This system has largely been replaced by the five-point system discussed above, but is still encountered quite often at the elementary school level, particularly in kindergarten and Grades 1 through 3 (these levels comprising the lower division of primary school). It is also occasionally used at schools for older children, including high schools, especially in the issuance of conduct or citizenship grades.

There are a few variations to this system, including the use of an O (for "outstanding") grade, which is even higher than the E; the use of an O instead of the E; a G (for "good") placed between the E and the S; the use of a G (again for "good") instead of the E; and the lack of a U grade. In this version, E stands for "exemplary" and P proficient, with AE and AP for work that approaches the E and P levels. "Credit" is equivalent to the D level and "No Credit" is equivalent to F. [2]

The use of M (for "mediocre") in place of the N and I (for "insufficient") in place of the U was used in the midwest, and included the F.

  • E (Excellent)
  • S (Satisfactory)
  • M (Mediocre)
  • I (Insufficient)
  • F (Failure)

The S grade may be so modified with an S+ or S−, but otherwise plus and minus are seldom used.

A similar system is used to rank practical work in the certain science department of Oxford University; however only with the grades S (Satisfactory) S+ (more than satisfactory, and may be used in the allocation of degree grades) and NS (Not Satisfactory).

De-emphasis of grades

A number of reputable liberal-arts colleges in the U.S. either do not issue grades at all (such as Alverno College, Antioch College, Bennington College, The Evergreen State College, New College of Florida, and Hampshire College), de-emphasize them (St. John's College, Reed College, Sarah Lawrence College, Prescott College, College of the Atlantic), or do not calculate Grade Point Averages (Brown University). In all cases, the rationale is that grades alone do not provide a clear picture of academic aptitude or of potential for success, and that learning, not achieving the highest score, should be the goal of a liberal education as is the case in graduate programs. In many cases, narrative evaluations are used as an alternative measurement system.

Grade I or Y

The letter grades 'I' and 'Y' are temporary grades, representing "Incomplete" and "Year", respectively. The distinction between them is so slight that most institutions only use one of them, not both.

A 'Y' grade indicates the course, or the time allowed to complete it, extends beyond the temporal bounds of a single term to encompass an entire academic or calendar year, or longer. Conversely, an 'I' grade indicates the student was satisfactorily completing a course when something happened that prevented timely completion, usually illness or injury.

The length of time allowed to complete the work for an 'I' grade varies from a deadline in the first few weeks following the end of term to a full calendar year, the latter being more usual. For some courses (such as independent studies or thesis/dissertation credits), or in some situations (such as subsequent non-enrollment), the time allowed for completion may be indefinite. Some institutions will convert the 'I' grade to an 'E' or 'F' (failing) grade if the student does not complete the course by the end of the time period; others simply make the 'I' grade permanent at that time; and a few institutions retroactively withdraw the student from the course, changing the 'I' to a 'W' grade. Most institutions allow students to apply for an extension of the completion time, upon presentation of special circumstances.

Policies on 'Y' grades are similar or identical to those for 'I' grades, but because of the historical difference in meaning ("Year" instead of "Incomplete"), it is rare for 'Y' grades to be converted to a failing grade if a student does not finish the course, but conversion to 'W' may be done.

Additional collegiate grades

  • FN = Failure for Non-Attendance
  • W = Withdrawal
  • X = Audit
  • NR = Not Reported by Instructor

The FN grade indicates that a student has failed a course due to non-attendance. It is calculated as an “F” in the student’s grade point average. For students receiving financial aid, failure for non-attendance may require the student to refund to the College all or part of his or her aid. The FN grade will be assigned by the faculty member at anytime following the final withdrawal date for the course. Students who are in a failing status because of non-attendance but return to the course prior to the withdrawal date may elect to withdraw from the course.

A grade of "W" indicates that a student has elected to withdrawal from a course prior to the course's withdraw deadline. It is not calculated in the student’s grade point average, which would keep the student from facing possible academic disciplinary action if he or she was to fall below the required Standards of Academic Progress (SAP). For students receiving financial aid, a grade of "W" may require the student to refund to the College all or part of his or her aid.

Standards for Academic Progress in Florida, for example, require a student to maintain a grade point average of 2.00 on the 4.00 scale. The student must also successfully complete 67% of the courses attempted, which includes previous failures, re-takes, and withdrawals. Additionally a student may not attempt a course more than three (3) times.

Course audits

Students may elect to audit a college credit course or workforce credit course by completing the audit form. Students may not change from credit to audit or from audit to credit after the drop deadline. A grade of “X” will be assigned for all courses taken in audit status.

No credit will be awarded and fees for college credit courses taken on an audit basis are the same as those taken on a college credit or workforce credit basis.

Courses taken for audit do not count as hours enrolled for the following areas: veteran certification, financial aid awards, Social Security certification, international student enrollment requirements or early admission program enrollment requirements.

Standards of Academic Progress (SAP)

Standards of Academic Progress are the standards set by the school, state, Board of Education, or other agency which are required of students to adhere to in order to continue to attend classes. A student who falls below the SAP may have disciplinary action taken against him or her or denial of financial aid until the student has met the required SAP. In Florida, Standards of Academic Progress require a student to maintain a grade point average of 2.00 or above on the 4.00 numeric grading scale. The student must also successfully complete 67% of the courses attempted, which includes previous failures, re-takes, and withdrawals. Additionally a student may not attempt a course more than three (3) times.

Grade points

To evaluate the scholastic standing of students, the following points are assigned to grades.

  • A = four grade points per semester hour
  • B = three grade points per semester hour
  • C = two grade points per semester hour
  • D = one grade point per semester hour
  • F = zero grade points per semester hour
  • FN = zero grade points per semester hour

Students’ scholastic standing or grade point average is obtained by dividing the total number of grade points earned by the total number of semester hours attempted for which the foregoing grades have been assigned. Grades of “I,” “W,” “NR,” and “X” are not used in the computation of grade point average. Grades earned in college preparatory classes do not count in the computation of the grade point average.


  1. ^ Debate Over Fairfax's Grading System. accessed December 2, 2011.
  2. ^ a b Kondo, Annette. "LAUSD Switches From Letter to Number Grades". Los Angeles Times. 
  3. ^ Tyre, Peggy (27 November 2010). "A's for Good Behavior". The New York Times. 
  4. ^ Lucas, Sandra Goss; Bernstein, Douglas A. (2004). Teaching Psychology. p. 36.  
  5. ^ Robert E. Slavin, Educational Psychology: Theory into Practice, (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1986, p.556-57
  6. ^ Price, Merle. "Grade Point Average (GPA) for Class Rank Determination" (PDF). LOS ANGELES UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT Policy Bulletin. LOS ANGELES UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT. Retrieved 21 April 2014. 
  7. ^ "High School GPA Calculator", Accessed 19 November 2011.
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