Why Is There No E in the A-F Grading Scale?


While in the minority, some schools do hand
out E letter grades, but the majority of schools in the United States, particularly beyond
primary age, give grades of A, B, C, D, and F. So where’d the E go? Rather than a failure on the part of academic
institutions to know the alphabet, the simple answer is that “F” stands for “fail.” The other four grades are more or less considered
“passing” (though in some districts a D is also a failing grade), which is why they
go in alphabetical order. The F is considered separate as it denotes
a failing grade, and does not need to go in alphabetical order. It just so happens that “fail” starts
with a letter that skips one letter alphabetically on the scale. That said, E was used at one point. The first college in the United States to
use a grading scale similar to the one we know today was Mount Holyoke College, an all-women’s
university in Massachusetts. Before that, Yale used a ranking system in
1785 where “optimi” was the highest mark, followed by second optimi, inferiore (“lower”),
and pejores (“worse”). William and Mary ranked students by number,
where No. 1 was the first in their class and No. 2 students were “orderly, correct and
attentive.” For a while, Harvard had a numerical grading
system where students were graded on a scale from 1-200 (except for math and philosophy
classes, which were 1-100). Yale had a four-point scale in 1813, switched
to a nine-point scale somewhere down the track, and back to a four-point scale in 1832. In 1883, there’s a single reference to a
student earning a “B” at Harvard, but historians haven’t found additional documentation
to back up the idea that a letter grade system was actually in place at that point. It is known that just a few years later, Harvard
had a system of Classes in place—students were either Class I, II, III, IV, or V, with
V being failing. That brings us back to the 1887 Mount Holyoke
system, which looked something like this: • A: excellent, 95-100%
• B: good, 85-94% • C: fair, 76-84%
• D: barely passed, 75%
• E: failed, below 75% A year later, Mount Holyoke modified their
grading scale. “B” became anything from 90-94%, “C”
was 85-89%, “D” was 80-84%, and “E” was 75-79%. Below that, they added in the dreaded “F.”
In the following years, some version of this letter grading scale became popular across
colleges and high schools alike, particularly as the number of students per teacher skyrocketed
not long after this time, requiring a simplified mechanism for assessing students to save time
and effort. As this happened, a lot of schools skipped
E and went straight to F for “Fail” That said, after World War II, some schools—many
in the Midwest—decided to go back to E for fail to keep things alphabetical, getting
rid of F. It’s further noted that some schools use “U”
for “unsatisfactory” or N for “no credit” in place of E or F.
Of course, in more modern times, the grading scale itself has been marked with an F (or
E, or U, or N) by many who believe it is no longer a good way to judge students’ work. For one thing, there are variations across
institutions. Some schools use + and -; some don’t. Some say an A is 90% and up, or 93% and up,
or 95% and up. Some consider a D to be a failing grade rather
than a passing one. On top of all of that, there are sometimes
major variations in terms of what it takes to get an A under one teacher vs an A from
another, even in the same school. Yet both are weighted equally when, for example,
applying for college. In the extreme, the co-author of this script
once had a computer science professor whose classes typically saw students awarded A’s
for as low as 10%. Although it should be noted that while you
might think this must have been a rather generous professor, the opposite was the case, with
anyone getting greater than a 10% in one of this professor’s classes needing to be an
absolute god among mere mortals. But, in the end, while not a perfect system,
letter grades are a rather convenient way to generalize where a particular student is
at academically in a given class and, let’s face it, after college, nobody cares what
your grades were anyway. What matters is just your grades looking good
enough to get into said college. Speaking of looking good, Mack Weldon!!! Bonus Facts:
Ever wonder how the whole “Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, and Senior” thing came to be? Well, wonder no more: It turns out the origins
of this date back several centuries to Cambridge where in 1688 it was noted that “The several
degrees of persons in the University Colledges . . . Fresh Men, Sophy Moores, Junior Soph,
or Sophester. And lastly Senior Soph.” That said, the origins of these individual
terms go back even farther, variously used seperately before this. To begin with, a child of Modern English,
“freshman” dates back to the mid-16th century where it has invariably meant either “newcomer”
or “novice.” Its use to denote a “university student in
first year,” also dates to the 1590s. As for sophomore, this is likely derived from
folk use of two Greek terms, sophos, meaning “wise,” and moros, meaning “foolish, dull,”
thus very aptly meaning a wise moron! Dating back to the 1650s, by the 1680s, the term was used to designate
university students in their second year of study. Moving on to Junior, this dates back to the
end of the 13th century, with junior always meaning in English someone younger, or more
particularly, “the younger of two.” Defined in relations to their more learned
and wise upperclassmen, early on, juniors were called “Junior Soph,” or “Sophester”
(ie Junior Wise) and seniors were denoted with “Sophester” (wise) or “Senior Soph”
(Senior Wise). Finally, since the mid-14th century, senior
has been used in English to denote either an older person or one of authority. Derived from the Latin adjective of the same
word (meaning older), by the early 17th century, it was being used to describe an “advanced
student,” and since 1741, without any “soph” attached it has meant a “fourth year student.” Next up, ever wonder why #2 pencils used to
be required for scantron test forms? Well, wonder no more:
To begin with, you might be saying, “Used to? Don’t you still have to?” It turns out, despite what pretty much all
teachers will tell you, not really. Modern scantron systems are quite high-tech,
using image sensors and sophisticated image processing algorithms. These algorithms can even pick out which oval
has the strongest mark. So if your test is being processed by one
of these newer scantron systems, you could fill out every bubble on the scantron and
it would simply pick the darkest shaded bubble in each row and assign that as your answer. As such, you can use pens, pencils, and even
printer toner or ink, if you want to run your scantron through a printer to mark all your
answers. Pencils are obviously still preferred over
pens, giving you the ability to erase your answer. Also, generally speaking, you still want to
use some form of grey to black colored marking device to ensure your scantron form is read
perfectly. Although, anecdotal evidence has shown that
even using shades of different colored ink or colored pencils will also work. Though, at that point, the system isn’t necessarily
going to read your form perfectly. Further, if you pick a shade that is close
to the color of the lines on the form, it might just ignore your markings altogether. On the flip-side, the early models of scantron
machines were significantly less sophisticated. The earliest of these scantron-like machines
used electrical conductivity, rather than light, to read forms. Graphite is quite conductive and paper is
not, so the machines simply had a mechanism at each markable area location to make contact
with the form and detect if an electrical current was detected across the area. These systems were used as early as the 1930s. As for the next generation of these systems,
they read pencil marks by shining light through the paper and Lucite light guides, which was
then read through phototubes. With this antiquated system, for an answer
to be read, the light must be completely blocked out by the pencil marking to register correctly. Graphite works well for this purpose because
graphite molecules, which form tiny sheets of carbon, reflect much of the light that
hits them and absorb most all the rest. It turns out, black ink isn’t opaque enough
for these old scantron systems. Further, lighter shades of graphite, such
as in #3 and #4 pencils, weren’t sufficiently opaque enough for these old systems to perform
without error, as is generally required. #1 pencils would have worked fine, as they
are darker than #2 pencils. But, unfortunately, they also smudge easier
when erased or accidentally rubbed with your hand as you mark the scantron form, increasing
the possibility of a “false positive” when the scantron was reading your form. So #2 pencils were just the right mix of darkness
and hardness of the graphite/clay core to block the light effectively, while also not
smudging too much. One of the ways you can tell instantly whether
whoever is processing your scantron is using a modern system or not is if the scantron
is double-sided. If so, it cannot be using an antiquated model,
as the marks on the other side would interfere with the older system’s ability to correctly
read the scantron form. Modern systems have no such problem. On a related note, scantron forms used blue
ink for the lines and outlines to the circles because these old systems were designed not
to pick up the light in the blue spectrum. Newer systems are simply designed to ignore
whatever color the scantron form was printed in and generally self calibrate.

100 thoughts on “Why Is There No E in the A-F Grading Scale?”

  1. Thanks to Mack Weldon for sponsoring this episode. To get 20% off your first order, visit http://mackweldon.com and enter brainfood

  2. Interesting, I only knew the Russians use reverse numbers for grades.
    I grew up with grades from 1-5 and later it was reformed to a scale from 1-6. Where 1 is the best and 6 the worst.
    The letter scheme has a alien appeal.

  3. What would the "E" stand for? Why don't you do us all a favor and stop taking up good air someone else could be breathing!

  4. I didn’t know anyone every used “E” or “U” I’ve been to 5 schools and 2 districts and they all were A-D and F.

  5. My grades were abysmal from high school because I didn't really put in any work for the final year. I regret my attitude to school all these years later and I urge anyone at school to always do your best as it's your only chance for a great education. You'll never get the chance again.

  6. The older Scantron that shined a light through the paper was also often 2 sided, but the form was carefully arranged so that the answers were interleaved instead of overlapping.

  7. In college, we have a more lenient scale.
    A 90-100
    B 80-89
    C 70-79
    D 60-69
    F 59 & under

    You can pass a class with a "D", but if you keep getting them, you will get put on academic probation & potentially lose any scholarships/aid that you may be receiving.

    Keep in mind, this is just for the school I attend in the US.

  8. E being uncommon is news to me. My school system used and continues to use A-E, with E being lower than 60 and a failing grade and no F grade. I am pretty sure my University gave E grades in the same manner. I wonder if it is a regional thing.

    The only exception I've ever experienced was in my third grade, where they for some reason used O, S, and N.

  9. Hey TodayIFoundOut!! I wanted to add a tidbit of information I figured you guys would enjoy hearing. My roommate is actually from Holyoke Massachusetts, it is typically pronounced as “hoy-oak”. Absolutely love your videos and figured you guys would enjoy hearing the info!

  10. Because the guy who came up with the scale didn't know the alphabet.

    Because the guy who came up with the scale wanted to mock the failures.

    Because he had amusing words for all of them, then we forgot them. Well, we still remember FAIL.

    So, sarcasm aside.

  11. So.
    As the letter value increases, the work value decreases… And F is so bad they had to skip over E to point out how hard it sucks.
    Gotcha!

  12. I hate grading on a curve!

    Brings up those who don't deserve it, brings down those who don't deserve it.

    I earned my grades! Pass or fail, I earned them all!

    Why did they start grading on a scale, and do they continue to do that?

  13. F is too harsh of a grade to give little kids. instead, we should instead tell all children how wonderful and special they are. then push them out to sea on a raft.

  14. Another letter used is "I" for "Incomplete" and is a grade my daughter brought home roughly 2 years ago from her Elementary School. I live in the U.S. Southeast.

  15. teacher tells class: more than half of you will fail this course.

    student: so you're telling us, you're bad at your job?

  16. Where I live (Quebec, a French speaking nation) there's an E but no F. A, B and C are passing grades, while D and E aren't. We only use letter grades in primary school (grades 1 to 6), after that we only use percentages. We also need to have at least 60% to pass, which is also the lowest threshold for C.

  17. I would wager much of the youth of today cannot fathom how an 84% would equal a "D" grade. In college I had a friend fail in his biology final sophomore year, he scored a 79.

  18. why there is A-F grading system at all ?
    Does average american kid is not capable to understand that 4 is bad and 10 is very good ?

  19. When I was in high school, "E" was a failing grade, but with credit. This allowed kids to fail a class without having to retake it to receive credit for the course.

  20. Amazing. You took a 30 second answer and stretched it into a 11 minute video.

    Somebody LOVES the sound of their own voice…oh ya YOU. 🤪

  21. In The Netherlands we use a scale from 1 to 10 with one extra decimal after the comma (we use the commas and dots the other way around).

  22. I was a horrible student, had more absences than anyone and still graduated high school. I found a loophole so I could play hockey. You had to maintain a 2.5 gpa to play, however if you were failing a class you could take a WNC (withdraw no credit). Which didn’t go towards your gpa. Problem solved

  23. we just use marks in Australia mostly, at least at high school and uni levels
    0-100
    sometimes scaled to a median that is not 50 – folks psychologically hate get 50 for "pass" 🙂 often in the 60-70 range
    Not sure if this is better or worse 🙂

  24. In New Zealand – at least in High-School – use Excellence, Merit, Achieved and Not Achieved. The more you know ~!

  25. We have "E" in Quebec Canada. but we dont use letters grading at all and jsut go with the Percentage once we get to highschool

  26. Mack Weldon – for single men only. I cannot imagine anything more gross than wearing the same pair of underwear for an entire week. Though, that computer bag has me drooling.

  27. Didn't even know they didn't. In Germany, we use 1 to 6 from years 1 to 10.

    If you're going for your Abitur in the eleventh and twelfth year, that changes to 15 to 0.

  28. In Sweden we habe A B C D E and F is a fail
    B and D are also not realy part of this scale – you cant get a final grade that is a B or C only in tests

  29. E was still used in the UK in the mid 1990's which has since been changed to a strange numerical grading system that no-one outside the education system really understands.

  30. The previous Danish grading system went from 00 to 13, 00 was basically what you got for not handing anything in, and 13 was when you exceeded pensum.
    The entire scale was 00, 03, 5, 6 (passed), 7, 8 (average), 9, 10, 11 and 13… Guess why the two lowest grades are two digits?

    Exactly why I thought E and F were merged… it's too easy to fake a better grade with just a pen stroke.

    Keeping a numbered grade system makes it easier to calculate an average, and the skips in numbers makes it so that nothing handed in would have a bigger impact on your average than just being lousy at biology. Likewise, being exceptional on physics could counter that. Anyway, most university educations ended up requiring 9 or 10 or more on average…

    So we invented a new one… the 7-step scale, also to be easier to translate to the A-F scale, which also features negative grades… -3, 00, 02 (passed), 4(average), 7, 10 and 12… So now you get a real hard punishment for not handing anything in (on the old scale, you'd get 03 just for writing your name, subject/class and date on to the paper), which can be very fair… but there's now no way that exceeding your pensum will give you a notable reward… (And I thought the old system was bad)…

    Anyway, the idea behind this system is that if your average is above 0 you have passed… in the end that means that you can score a whole lot of just below passing (00) and one passing grade… you've passed the whole school year. But once you venture in to negatives, it doesn't matter if you're strong on math, physics and chemestry, you basically need to know the entire pensum by heart not to be punished by bad luck…

    So in the end I like the old system better, it could tell you that, you've passed, just below average, or just above average… Anyway, I've heard that DK is again considering a new grading system…

    Sorry for the rant, I just got reminded what a mess the DK system has ended up in, in trying to become compatible with the A-F scale. Which makes me think about it, when there's no E, and you attend an exam, but only fill out name, subject/class and date… It's an F right? (by the way, multichoice is so uncommon here so just answering B throughout the test gives us no statistical advantage).

  31. In my high school (I don't know if it's changed by now) a D is not a fail but it feels like one. I got a shoe/a belt/a pot spoon/the ring hand for a C… I'm not traumatized at all

  32. The US, like always, is being weird with grades. Here we just get a percentage, and that's it. Anything above 55% is a passing grade, though barely. It's considered good once you get above 75%, and great above 85%. We don't do bshitty multiple choice questions though.

  33. Jokes on you, our school district never had F's. Failing grades were literally graded as an E instead of an F for us

  34. I would actually appreciate letter system in Europe. We are too obsessed over numbers, like getting 100 or 10, a perfect score. By society it is usually seen as result of great talent, knowledge or intellect while in reality, getting a perfect or near perfect score is purely a matter of luck. I do appreciate more rounded grading system where you can actually feel deserving of A or B without feeling that grade is merely a matter of luck as there is quite a bit of difference in 10 points. Furthermore, with extension of pluses and minuses, it is a nice way to still get same grade, but with a knowledge that you either did well enough to nearly get A or C depending on a sign.

  35. Other countries that also use number systems? In the Netherlands we use 1 to 10. 1 is complete fail, anything above 5,5 is a pass, a 10 is perfect and rarely given.

  36. In Australia, we stop at D. Occasionally E will be used for non participation. D would be if you handed in an assignment but it was crap, and E would be if you didn’t hand it in at all. C is a passing grade. You would get a + or – on an individual assignment but not on a report card, it would just be a letter

  37. My high school just went with percentages. In every test, quiz or assignment, the questions tended to add up to a base 10 total (x/20, x/40, x/100, etc.), so the teacher would note your percentage or you could figure it out. 50% was a pass. Anything lower was a fail.

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