Structure of the U.S. Education System: U.S. Grading Systems
A variety of grading systems are used in U.S. education. The decision on what grading system to use is a matter within the exclusive authority of the individual school or higher education institution, and usually up to the individual faculty member or disciplinary department within the school or institution.
NOTE: There is no nationally mandated grading scheme in the United States. The examples described below are only some of the most frequently encountered grading systems.
Norm-Referenced Grading Systems
Norm-referenced grading systems are based on a pre-established formula regarding the percentage or ratio of students within a whole class who will be assigned each grade or mark. The students, while they may work individually, are actually in competition to achieve a standard of performance that will classify them into the desired grade range. For example, a faculty may establish a grading policy whereby the top 10 percent of students will receive a mark of excellent or outstanding, which in a class of 100 enrolled students will be 10 persons. A norm-referenced grading system might look like:
|A (Excellent)||= Top 10 % of Class|
|B (Good)||= Next 20 % of Class|
|C (Average, Fair)||= Next 30 % of Class|
|D (Poor, Pass)||= Next 20 % of Class|
|F (Failure)||= Bottom 20 % of Class|
The underlying assumption in norm-referenced grading is that the students are roughly equal in ability, and the goal is to select the best performers in the group. Norm-referenced systems are most often used for screening selected student populations in conditions where it is known that not all students can advance due to limitations such as available places, jobs, or other controlling factors. Highly competitive and oversubscribed programs of study, such as law and medicine, or related preparatory programs may use norm-referenced grading to reduce the class size that is allowed to enter or continue such programs. U.S. students often refer to norm-referenced grading systems as "grading on a curve," a phrase that reflects the formulaic character of such systems.
Reprinted with the permission of the U.S. Department of Education.
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