The table below lists and describes different current approach to grading and provides the historical background for each type of grading scheme.

Types of Grading Schemes: Definitions and Historical Background

Type of Grading Definition Historical Background
Percentage grading Using a percentage scale (percent of 100), usually based on percent correct on exams and/or percent of points earned on assignments
  • Most common method in use in high schools and grading colleges c.1890–1910.
  • Used today as a grading method or as a way of arriving at letter grades.
Letter grading and variations Using a series of letters (often A, B, C, D, F) or letters with plusses and minuses as an ordered category scale - can be done in a norm-referenced (standards-based) manner
  • Yale used a four-category variations system in 1813.
  • In the 1920 letter grading was seen as the solution to the problem of reliability of percentage grading (fewer or criterion-referenced categories) and was increasingly adopted.
Norm-referenced grading Comparing students to each other; using class standing as the basis for assigning grades (usually letter grades)
  • Was advocated in early grading 1900s as scientific measurement.
  • Educational disadvantages were known by the 1930s.
Mastery grading Grading students as “masters” or “passers” when their attainment reaches a prespecified level, usually allowing different amounts of time for different students to reach mastery
  • Originating in the 1920s (e.g., Morrison, 1926) as a grading strategy, it became associated with the educational strategy of mastery learning (Bloom, Hastings, & Madaus, 1971).
Pass/Fail Using a scale with two levels (pass and fail), sometimes in connection with mastery grading
  • In 1851, the University of Michigan experimented with pass/fail grading for classes.
Standards (or Absolute-Standards) grading Originally, comparing student performance to a preestablished standard (level) of performance; currently, standards grading sometimes means grading with reference to a list of state or district content standards according to preestablished performance levels
  • Grading according to standards of performance has been championed since the grading 1930s as more educationally  sound than norm-referenced grading.
  • Current advocates of standards grading use the same principle but the term "standard” is now used for the criterion itself, not the level of performance.
  • Since 2002, the scales on some standards-based report cards use the state accountability (proficiency) reporting categories instead of letters.
Narrative grading Writing comments about students’ achievement, either in addition to or instead of using numbers or letters
  • Using a normal instructional practice (describing students’ work) in an assessment context.