A Failing Grade Hasn’t Always Been an “F”

May 25, 2023


Getting an “F” in school to represent failure or flunking hasn’t always been the case. At one point, an “E” was the lowest grade you could get.

Assigning a letter grade to schoolwork can be traced back to 1897 at Mount Holyoke College, an all-women’s university in Massachusetts, which was the first to use such a system. The lowest grade you could receive at the college was an “E,” which meant “failure.” Only a year later, the college changed the “E” designation to an “F.” Other schools followed this letter-grading system or some variation in the years to follow, but the “E” letter grade was slowly phased out completely by the 1930s.

But why, might you ask? It’s believed it was because of fears that students would misinterpret the grade to mean “excellent.” It seems that should be a good reason why they should be receiving an “F” in the first place.

Before the time that Mount Holyoke issued their grading system, grading a student’s performance varied. In the 1800s, many colleges had their own point scale that fit students into groups based on performance, or they used their own grading point scale. Going back even farther, colleges in the U.S. used the Oxford and Cambridge model. This simply determined that if the student had completed the course and shown mastery of the material based on what the professor, or a group of professors, deemed to be acceptable, the student passed.

The grading system most in use today usually uses the A, B, C, D, and F model, but the number grade for each of these letters can vary. Universities and colleges in the United States use the 4.0 Scale of grading that calculates the GPA (Grade Point Average) on a scale from one to four.

Other countries have entirely different grading systems. The Netherlands and Spain use a 10-point grading system, with ten being the best and one being the worst. Switzerland and Germany use a 6-point grading system.

Grading for a Bachelor’s degree in the United Kingdom has a much different look and breaks grades into first-class honours, second-class honours (which have an upper and lower division), third-class honours, and without honours, which is still considered a “pass.” Universities in Australia have two grading systems, one that is similar to the United Kingdom’s system, and another that gives letter grades of High Distinction (HD), Distinction (D), Credit (Cr), Pass (P), and Fail (F). These are just a few of the many examples of grading systems that can be found around the globe.

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites. I hope you learn many new things here that add to your knowledge.

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