Why Isn’t There a Letter E Grade?
When it comes to that letter grade on your (or your kid’s) latest test or assignment, the further down the alphabet you go, the more you get filled with panic. A, B, C, D, all the way down to the dreaded F. If you’re well versed in your ABCs, you might notice that this grading system seems to skip over the letter E. Have you ever thought about why that is? Why isn’t there a letter E grade?
Well first, we should probably clarify that some schools do hand out E letter grades instead of F. But regardless of what grading system was used when you were in school, most Americans are familiar with the concept of F grades. So did people just forget about E? Not quite.
In the A, B, C, D, and F grading system, the first four letters are typically considered passing grades. An F in this system simply stands for “fail.” It is purely coincidence that “fail” happens to start with a letter that seems to skip a letter in the alphabet. The fact of the matter is that any letter can represent “not-passing” or “fail.” Some schools hand out U grades for “unsatisfactory,” N grades for “no credit,” or I grades for “incomplete.” Educators can use just about any letter and it would amount to roughly the same thing. It is simply an indicator of a non-passing grade.
Even with all this said though, we should also point out that E grades actually have been used pretty commonly throughout the history of letter grades in America.
History of Letter Grades
The first college in the United States to use a letter grading scale like the ones we use today is typically considered to be Mount Holyoke College (though Harvard may have given a single letter grade to a student earlier), an all-women’s university in Massachusetts. In 1887, they began using the following grading scale:
A: 95-100% (excellent)
B: 85-94% (good)
C: 76-84% (fair)
D: 75% (barely passed)
E: below 75% (failed)
Notice the inclusion of E as opposed to F. That scale would not last long, however. A year later, they would tweak the grading scale to look more like this:
F: below 75%
Gradually, the letter grading scale became more popular across colleges and high schools throughout the US. However, many schools decided to drop the E grade and go straight to F. There is no evidence to really support this, but one common theory holds that teachers were worried students and parents might mistake E for “excellent,” perhaps explaining in part why E is less common than F. However, using that same logic, you might argue for the elimination of letter grades all together. After all, A could stand for “awful,” B for “bad”, C for “crummy,” etc. Another possible explanation is that schools merely wanted to simplify their grading scale.
Why do we even have letter grades? Well, part of the reason letter grades became popular in the first place is that they streamlined grading during a time of great change for schools. As the 20th century began, growing cities, an increase in immigration, and mandatory attendance laws led to larger school classrooms. Teachers needed all the help they could get, and this new letter grading system was thought to be an easy, fair, and clear way to grade students.
Letter Grades Today
Today, you will find various different grading systems across the country. Some schools and colleges continue to give letter grades, some give percentages or grade-point averages, and some simply give students a “Pass” or a “Fail.”
Furthermore, more and more people are starting to believe that the letter grade system is no longer very relevant. They would argue that letter grades don’t fully and accurately reflect student learning. However, as teachers and administrators try to improve and enhance grading methods, many parents continue to prefer the old letter grades they got as kids. They are familiar and easy for parents to understand. So while they might not be perfect, they probably aren’t going away any time soon.
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.