For our parents, our grandparents, and even our great-grandparents, grades were the sole measurement of a student’s learning. Alas, it was not always so. Before 1850, grades were virtually unheard of in the American educational system. For most of the 19th century, students of all ages and abilities were taught in one-room school rooms. The teacher lived within the community, often boarding with one of the families. In those nuclear communities, the teacher visited each student’s home and reported the progress orally.
Beginning in the late 19th century, as more students attended school regularly, teachers began to formalize the students’ progress reports. Reports indicated which subjects and skills the student had mastered and which required more work. Students were not allowed to move up a level until they had mastered the skills of the current level.
As the 19th century ended and the 20th began elementary education became compulsory. The result was that a great many more children went on to high school. In a mere 40 years, the number of high schools in the U.S. soared to 10,000 in 1910 from a mere 500 in 1870. Again, the increased number of students, forced teachers to rethink reporting student progress. During this time period, elementary teachers relied on the written narrative progress reports, but high school teachers began to use percentages as a method of evaluating and reporting student achievement.
Shortly after the implementation of percentages became standard , a shocking flaw was reported by two Wisconsin researchers. The researchers sent identical sets of student English papers to several different teachers and received widely disparate results. The reason? Teachers used different criteria to judge the papers. The following years, the researchers sent identical sets of completed math tests to several math teachers. The results were equally disparate.
The disparity uncovered by the Wisconsin researchers led to the use of the bell-curve. The curve was thought to be more reliable, because it replicated the probability curve of innate learning ability and student achievement. Again, the theory proved to be superficial and the application was not consistent from teacher to teacher or student to student.
Today teachers use a variety of methods to access and report student learning.