Grading for Equity: A Brief History of Grading

Steamer Glass [i.e. class]” in Hancock School, Boston. Immigrant children.
Abstract: Photographs from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.)
I have a copy of my great-great-grandmother Stella Bowling Cunningham’s diary from 1893-1894, which I transcribed. It’s a fascinating window into history for many reasons, one of which is that while Stella was writing the diary, she was a teacher. She married in May 1894, after which she had to quit teaching and keep house.

Her primary concerns as a teacher seem to center around keeping order in her classroom. She remarks very little on what she actually taught her students, but she mentions whether or not class was unruly a few times. I also have a copy of a letter she wrote my great-uncle Alvin, who must have been assigned to write to grandparents and ask what school was like when they were little. Stella’s letter is wonderful (I reproduced it on this blog about 14 years ago).

I think I have always found the history of education, particularly schools, fascinating. I really enjoyed reading Joe Feldman’s chapter on the history of grading in  Grading for Equity. Much of it was material I already knew, as one of his sources, Schneider & Hutt’s (2014) article “Making the Grade: A History of the A-F Marking Scheme” was one my own sources as well. If you can get your hands on this article, I highly recommend you read it (the full citation, including DOI, is at the end of this post). I learned some really interesting things from it, particularly the fact that the A-F grading system is not really that old. It quickly became entrenched in schools, and it seems nearly impossible now to imagine schools with A-F grades, but they actually didn’t become entrenched until about the 1940s. My grandparents were still in school in the 1940s, though my grandfather would have graduated in the very early 1940s. The history of letter grades as a method for communicating learning isn’t that old.

First, yesterday I promised to continue reflecting on Feldman’s “Questions to Consider” for chapter 1 today; however, on reading them more closely, I’m not sure you care over much why I am reading this book or who I’m reading it with, so I’ll skip those, except to say that  I’ll reconsider anything I’m doing if it means my grading practices will be more equitable. Chapter 2 dives into the history of schools and grades a bit more.

How do schools in the first half of the twenty-first century—their design, their purpose, their student—compare with schools in the first half of the twentieth century?

I have actually sat in desks that were bolted to the floor. Have you? I find that the design of classrooms, at least in schools where I have taught, is much more fluid. Desks are mobile, sometimes even on wheels. Students sit in a large circle or square in my classrooms. My classroom looks different from the classrooms I sat in and from the images of vintage classrooms (like the one at the beginning of this post). We also have projectors and computers. My students learn from viewing images and watching videos in addition to reading. Most stakeholders would probably agree that my school’s purpose is to prepare students for college. I don’t think that was the goal of most schools in the early 20th century.

Did you know that Thomas Jefferson was one of the first people to propose schools as we might describe them today? In his Notes on the State of Virginia (which isn’t read enough and is why people don’t realize how complicated and problematic Jefferson’s ideas could sometimes be), he wrote (emphasis my own, spelling his):

This bill proposes to lay off every county into small districts of five or six miles square, called hundreds, and in each of them to establish a school for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. The tutor to be supported by the hundred, and every person in it entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it. These schools to be under a visitor, who is annually to chuse the boy, of best genius in the school, of those whose parents are too poor to give them further education, and to send him forward to one of the grammar schools, of which twenty are proposed to be erected in different parts of the country, for teaching Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic. Of the boys thus sent in any one year, trial is to be made at the grammar schools one or two years, and the best genius of the whole selected, and continued six years, and the residue dismissed. By this means twenty of the best geniusses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammar schools go. At the end of six years instruction, one half are to be discontinued (from among whom the grammar schools will probably be supplied with future masters); and the other half, who are to be chosen for the superiority of their parts and disposition, are to be sent and continued three years in the study of such sciences as they shall chuse, at William and Mary college, the plan of which is proposed to be enlarged, as will be hereafter explained, and extended to all the useful sciences. The ultimate result of the whole scheme of education would be the teaching all the children of the state reading, writing and common arithmetic: turning out ten annually of superior genius, well taught in Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic: turning out ten others annually, of still superior parts, who, to those branches of learning, shall have added such of the sciences as their genius shall have led them to: the furnishing to the wealthier part of the people convenient schools, at which their children may be educated at their own expence.

Pardon the long quote, but I find it worth quoting at length because it several ideas come into focus if you read the whole thing:

  1. School was never envisioned to be equitable, not even the mind of the guy who wrote that “all men are created equal.” It was made to sort people, which is why tracking is still so common.
  2. The language Jefferson uses is telling: he describes students as “rubbish.” He didn’t include girls or BIPOC in the calculation at all. It’s a pretty classist idea even if you remove the sexism and racism. You know the boy children of poor farmers weren’t going to college.
  3. If you’re struggling to parse the language, the proposal is as follows:
    • Send one boy per “hundred” to a grammar school. The remaining students would end their schooling after three years in the “hundred” school.
    • Of those boys sent to grammar school, competition for continued education would be fierce: Jefferson suggests one or two years of grammar school to separate the wheat from the chaff, after which one of those grammar school students could continue his education for six more years.
    • Half of those boys lucky enough to continue their education past grammar school would then be able to go to college after that six years of education.

The competition among students was baked into American education early on. My great-great-grandmother Stella describes such competition when she describes spelling class: “We sat on long benches and a class would go up to the teacher to recite and sit on a long bench, only the spelling classes would stand in a row and “turn down”, when one missed a word.”

I would argue school has changed a great deal since the early 1900s but some aspects of school haven’t changed much. I have cited studies ranging from 1888-2019 in my research that document traditional letter grades’ issues with reliability, consistency, motivation, and self-concept. Grades seem to be the one aspect of school we are resistant to changing, in spite of a large body of evidence supporting change.

Once again, I’ve gone on too long and you’re probably not reading anymore. More tomorrow on how I see ideas and beliefs of the early 20th century at work in schools where I have taught.

Citations for further reading:

Feldman, J. (2019). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin.

Jefferson, T. (1787). Notes on the state of Virginia. Prichard and Hall. https://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/jefferson/jefferson.html

Schneider, J. & Hutt, E. (2014). Making the grade: A history of the A-F marking scheme. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(2), 201-224. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220272.2013.790480

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