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Grading Systems

Grading systems vary from country to country and state to state. They can even vary within a state, depending on whether a school is public, charter, private, or homeschool. Here is an overview of the most common methods of providing grades in the United States. 

The most commonly used grading system in the U.S. uses discrete evaluation in the form of letter grades. Many schools use a GPA (grade-point average) system in combination with letter grades.

There are also many other systems in place. Some schools use a numerical scale of 100 instead of letter grades. Others, including many Montessori schools, eliminate discrete evaluation in favor of pure discursive evaluation.

Since there is no standardized system of grading in the United States, the decision of how to grade is left up to individual schools, universities, and the regulatory authority of the individual states.

At most schools, colleges and universities in the United States, letter grades follow a five-point system, using the letters A, B, C, D and E/F, with A indicating excellent, C indicating average and F indicating failing. Additionally, most schools calculate a student's grade point average (GPA) by assigning each letter grade a number and averaging those numerical values.

Numerical values for letter grades

Generally, American schools equate an A with a numerical value of 4.0. For most secondary schools, the minimum overall and course passes are both D or D−. Most undergraduate schools require a 2.0, or C average to obtain a degree with a minimum of D or D− to pass a course, and most graduate schools require a 3.0 (B) average to take a degree, with C or C− being the lowest grade for course credit.

Whereas most American graduate schools use four-point grading (A, B, C, and E/F), several—mostly in the west, especially in California—do award D grades but still require a B average for degree qualification. Some American graduate schools use nine- or ten-point grading scales. In a handful of states, GPA scales can go above 4.0.

Calculating grades based on percentages

The percentage needed in any given course to achieve a certain grade and the assignment of GPA point values varies from school to school, and sometimes between instructors within a given school. The most common grading scales for normal courses and honors/Advanced Placement courses are as follows:


"Normal" courses

Honors/AP courses


























E / F






Some states may use an alternate grading scale such as the following which is commonly used.














Whether a school uses E or F to indicate a failing grade typically depends on time and geography. Around the time of World War II, several states began to use E, while the majority of the country continued to use the F, which traces to the days of Pass/Fail grading (P and F). In recent years, some schools have begun using an N for failing grades, presumably to represent "No Credit". Another letter used to represent a failing grade is U, representing "unsatisfactory."

Using plus or minus (+ or -) in grading 

Chromatic variants ("+" and " − ") are used. In most 100-point grading systems, the letter grade without variants is centered around a value ending in five. The "plus" variant is then assigned the values near the nine digit and the "minus" variant is assigned the values near zero. Any decimal values are usually rounded.

Thus, a score of 80 to 82 is a B−, a score 83 to 87 is a B and a score of 87 to 89 is a B+. The four-point GPA scale, the letter grade without variants is assigned to the integer. The "plus" and "minus" variants are then assigned to .3 above the integer and .3 below the integer, respectively. Thus, a B is equal to 3.0, a B+ is equal to 3.3, and a B− is equal to 2.7.

The A range is often treated as a special case. In most American schools, a 4.00 is regarded as perfect and the highest GPA one can achieve. Thus, an A, being the prime grade, achieves the mark of a 4.00; for the A+ mark, most schools still assign a value of 4.00, equivalent to the A mark, to prevent deviation from the standard 4.00 GPA system.

However, the A+ mark, then, becomes a mark of distinction that has no impact on the student's GPA. A few schools, however, do assign grade values of 4.33 or 4.30; but the scale is still called "4.0", because grading scales (or "quality indices") take their numerical names from the highest whole number.

Weighted grades for advanced courses

In many American high schools, students may also score above 4.0 if taking advanced, honors, Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate classes (for example, a "regular" A would be worth four points, but an A earned in an advanced class might be worth 4.5 or 5 points towards the GPA.). 

This is called a weighted GPA and is designed to reward students for taking more advanced courses. Although weighting GPAs is a widespread practice in the United States, there is little research into whether weighted GPAs are better than unweighted GPAs. In one study, weighted GPAs were not suitable for predicting any college outcomes, but unweighted GPA were strong predictors of college GPA.

Grade evaluation by colleges

There has been dispute over how colleges should look at grades from previous schools and high schools because one grade in one part of the country might not be the equivalent of a grade in another part of the country. In other words, an "A" might be 90–100 somewhere, and a 94–100 somewhere else.

Calculating a GPA

In middle and high schools that do not use a system based on academic credit, the grade point average is computed by taking the mean of all grades. In colleges and universities that use discrete evaluation, the grade-point average is calculated by multiplying the quantitative values by the credit value of the correlative course, and then dividing the total by the sum of all credits.

For example:




Grade Points

Speech 101



3 × 4.0 = 12.0

Biology 102



4 × 3.3 = 13.2

History 157



3 × 2.7 = 8.1

Physical Education 104



1 × 2.0 = 2.0

  • Total Credits: 11
  • Total Grade Points: 35.3
  • Grade Point Average: 35.3 / 11 = 3.209 or slightly below B+

In a standards-based grading system, a performance standard is set by a committee based on ranking anchor papers and grading rubrics, which demonstrate performance which is below, meeting, or exceeding the "standard.”

This standard is intended to be a high level of performance, which must be met by every student regardless of ability. Levels are generally assigned numbers between zero and four. Writing papers may be graded separately on content (discussion) and conventions (spelling and grammar).

Since grading is not based on a curve distribution, it is entirely possible to achieve a grading distribution in which all students pass and meet the standard. While such grading is generally used only for assessments, they have been proposed for alignment with classroom grading.

However, in practice, grading can be much more severe than traditional letter grades. Even after ten years, some states, such as Washington, continue to evaluate over half of their students as "below standard" on the state mathematics assessment.

Here is another example of a commonly used grading scale, currently in place at Wayzata High School in Plymouth, Minnesota. The Grade Point Average is not the traditional four-point scale, but uses the 12-point scale for unweighted classes and the 15-point scale for weighted classes:





























The 12-point GPA scale works as follows. Students receive 12 points for an A or A+, 11 points for an A−, 10 points for a B+, etc. for each grading period. Once a grading period is complete, the student's total grade points are divided by the total number of credits and a GPA is generated.

For example, here is one term of grades and a grade point average from a student whose school uses the 86-minute block schedule (such as Wayzata High School):

Math 4X (1 credit)

95.06/A = 12 Grade Points

Chemistry X (1 credit)

87.39/B+ = 10 Grade Points

Symphonic Band (1 credit)

99.76/A+ = 12 Grade Points

AP United States History (1 credit)

92.57/A− = 11 Grade Points


45 Grade Points/4 Credits = 11.25 GPA (Slightly better than A−, equivalent to 3.75)


Standards-based grading

Standards-based grading is a well-known practice of assessment. It provides students with learning expectations and an in depth way of evaluation students. It is not the most common assessment method but it provides students with developmental feedback. Researchers have determined that students who were previously exposed to standards-based grading reflected higher performance.

Alternative grading methods

Alternative grading methods over a diverse way of assessing student progress. Recent studies reveal that alternative grading methods may lead to more applicable growth opportunities for students' overtime. These methods can include portfolios, narrative evaluations, contract grading, developmental meetings and verbal feedback. These methods provide insight to evaluation methods and emphasize student progress and improvement.Some alternative grading methods include contract grading, the Waldorf assessment style, and narrative evaluation.

Contract grading emphasizes learning behaviors. Most students are accepting of contract grading; however, the data shows that less than half of students noted they found it helpful and less stressful than letter grades. Most students that dislike this method were advanced students and found the process to be repetitive.

Waldorf assessments

The Waldorf assessment style consists of developmental meetings and an evaluation letter. Waldorf grading methods focused more on what they were learning rather than how well each student applied it. It emphasizes positive feedback and progress. Some people may label it as unstructured, others may describe it as a personalized and relaxed style of learning and assessment. Waldorf philosophy strongly reiterates the growth and improvement of the students.

Narrative evaluation can be defined as detailed written feedback (as distinguished from a Charlotte Mason-style verbal narration). Studies show that over half of students like narrative evaluation, as it focuses on improvement and provides personal detail of how students have grown. It allows for more personalized feedback and eliminates the competitive nature of students to compare themselves to their classmates.

This article adapted on 1/22/20 from a detailed article on international grading systems at Please refer to the original article for up to date information on grading scales for many different countries.

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