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How Come You Never Got an "E" in School?

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With most schools in the US about to let out for the summer, reader Sarah in California had report cards on her mind. She wrote to ask how letter grades originated, and why no one ever gets an "E."

Making the Grade

Credit for the idea of grading students' work quantitatively generally goes to William Farish, a tutor at the University of Cambridge in the late 18th century. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing in Britain, and piecework payment systems—payment based on the number of pieces produced rather than hours worked—were becoming popular even outside of manufacturing. Some schools were paying teachers per student instead of per hour.

Under this payment system, Farish saw that any limit on the number of students he could take on would limit the amount of money he could make. So he followed the lead of the industrialists and devised a teaching tool that would allow him to streamline his work and process more students: grades. The time and effort it took to evaluate students' work and ideas were reduced considerably by Farish's grading system (exactly how that system worked is unknown). The system could be scaled up or down easily, too, and worked just as well with 100 kids in the classroom as with 10. Farish could take all the students he could get and rake in the dough.

Update, 10-2010: Dr. Paul Worfel, an Associate Professor of Education at Huntington University in Indiana, has commented below to point out that I did not check my sources carefully enough, and to clear things up a little. Information I was able to find on William Farish on a few websites echo statements made by radio talk show host Thom Hartmann. Worfel, who’s done a bit of research on Farish, has pointed out here and on other sites, that these statements are largely fabrication on Hartmann’s part.

Worfel says below: “Except for the reasonable evidence that Farish started using a numerical grading system in Cambridge in 1792, the rest of the article from a historical basis is fabrication by Hartmann to try and assert his point of view regarding grades… The reason Farish instituted the use of numerical grades was to provide better equity to an oral examination system that was filled with favoritism and bias… Farish would not have improved his financial picture a bit by instituting numerical grades since students were not graded in relationship to lectures. There was only one exam at the end of a three-year study at the university. And that exam was not open to all students, only those determined by the university heads to be possible honors students… [Farish was also] instrumental in promoting a petition for the abolition of slavery [in the] 1780s, instrumental in working with students to organize the Cambridge Auxiliary Bible Society, instrumental in the development Cambridge Missionary Society… In Cambridge he was vicar of the third largest church, but also the poorest, which lead to his involvement in starting schools for the poor children in his parish. I've just touched on a few of his accomplishments.

He also points out in the comments on this post from Beyond School: “…Farish used a quantitative system for grading the single exam given Cambridge undergrads. Notice I said single exam. This was the only exam used to score a select few undergrads in what was called the Senate House exam during what we in the US would call the senior year. There were no other exams or papers prior to this point. The grading system was not, as Hartmann claims, used to increase the number of attendees at lectures. In fact attending lectures was quite voluntary. …Farish along with many other fellows recognize there was a good deal of favoritism in the examination process. Farish introduced (this is based on a good deal of circumstantial evidence) numerical grading as a means of providing a more equitable means of differentiating students’ response. Farish didn’t need grading to attract students to his lectures because they were not used in the context of any of his lectures or teaching during Farish’s lifetime.”

My apologies for providing bad info to the readers here, and a big thanks to Dr. Worfel for calling out my blunder and setting things straight.

Grading in the USA

Universities and colleges in America spent the 19th century experimenting with different ways of grading their students with various numerical systems or descriptive adjectives.

Yale got the ball rolling in 1785, when it handed out the first grades in America to a group of 58 students taking an exam. Twenty earned an "Optimi," sixteen got a "Second Optimi," twelve got an "Inferiore," and ten got a "Pejores."

A few other highlights from the early years include Harvard's first numerical system, which was a scale of 1-200, except for mathematics and philosophy classes, which switched to a 1-100 scale. Yale, meanwhile, started using a four-point scale starting in 1813, switched to a nine-point scale at some point, then went back to four in 1832. Harvard later ditched the numbers and, in 1883, gave out the first reported letter grade in the United States (a "B," for what its worth). Harvard changed gears again three years later and graded students as Class I, II, III, IV (IV was not quite as good as the first three, but not failing) and V (fail).

In 1897, Mount Holyoke College instituted a letter grade system similar to what is used today (with the exception of an "E" grade), but by the turn of the century, percentage grading on a 100-point scale became the norm and stayed so until the 1940s, when letters again made a resurgence. Recent surveys show that letter grades are the most common grades used in elementary and secondary schools and two- and four-year colleges and universities.

Understanding the System

The ways that percentages correspond to letter grades and GPA point values varies from school to school, but the following grading scale is pretty common.

Grade Percentage GPA value
A (highest grade, excellent)
90-100 3.5-4.0
B (above average) 80-89 2.5-3.49
C (average) 70-79 1.5-2.49
D (minimum passing grade, below average)
60-69 1.0-1.49
F (fail)
0-59 0.0

Some schools tack a plus or minus onto a letter grade and, if they use a 100-point scale, will usually assign the regular letter grade a value at the middle of a decile, the + grade a value in the top part of the decile and the − grade a value in the bottom part. In other words, getting an 80 to 83 in a class would earn you a B−, an 83.01 to 87 would be a B and 87.01 to 89.99 would get you a B+.

In most schools, an A corresponds to a 4.00 GPA, the highest one can achieve, which makes the A+ a strange beast. Some schools will award A+'s as marks of distinction, but still cap the GPA at 4.00. Others extend the GPA scale beyond an even four and assign an A+ a value of 4.33.

Where's the E?

Simply put, there's no E grade because there doesn't need to be. The only alphabetical intent in the letter grading system is in the four passing grades: A, B, C, and D.

The F comes next not because of a missing E and alphabetical order, but because it stands for "Fail." Even if F were the last letter in the alphabet, it'd probably be used the same way on report cards and mean the same thing.

The E is actually used in some grading systems, though. Since WWII, some schools, mostly Midwestern, have used E instead of F to denote a failing grade. A few schools even use U ("unsatisfactory") or N ("no credit") instead of F.

Grading the Grades?

Since their inception, grades have been the subject of simmering controversy. Critics claim that they're unreliable and encourage students to take only courses they know they'll do well in, while proponents say that they're necessary for the evaluation of student performance. We no doubt have both students and educators out there reading the blog (my girlfriend and I both majored in secondary education for a little while in college), so tell us: does the grading system at your school get an A, or are we better off with a different system—or no grades at all?

Scientists Study the Starling Invasion Unleashed on America by a Shakespeare Fan

On a warm spring day, the lawn outside the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan gleams with European starlings. Their iridescent feathers reflect shades of green and indigo—colors that fade to dowdy brown in both sexes after the breeding season. Over the past year, high school students from different parts of the city came to this patch of grass for inspiration. "There are two trees at the corner I always tell them to look at," Julia Zichello, senior manager at the Sackler Educational Lab at the AMNH, recalls to Mental Floss. "There are holes in the trees where the starlings live, so I was always telling them to keep an eye out."

Zichello is one of several scientists leading the museum's Science Research Mentoring Program, or SRMP. After completing a year of after-school science classes at the AMNH, New York City high school students can apply to join ongoing research projects being conducted at the institution. In a recent session, Zichello collaborated with four upperclassmen from local schools to continue her work on the genetic diversity of starlings.

Before researching birds, Zichello earned her Ph.D. in primate genetics and evolution. The two subjects are more alike than they seem: Like humans, starlings in North America can be traced back to a small parent population that exploded in a relatively short amount of time. From a starting population of just 100 birds in New York City, starlings have grown into a 200-million strong flock found across North America.

Dr. Julia Zichello
Dr. Julia Zichello

The story of New York City's starlings began in March 1890. Central Park was just a few decades old, and the city was looking for ways to beautify it. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin came up with the idea of filling the park with every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. This was long before naturalists coined the phrase "invasive species" to describe the plants and animals introduced to foreign ecosystems (usually by humans) where their presence often had disastrous consequences. Non-native species were viewed as a natural resource that could boost the aesthetic and cultural value of whatever new place they called home. There was even an entire organization called the American Acclimatization Society that was dedicated to shipping European flora and fauna to the New World. Schieffelin was an active member.

He chose the starling as the first bird to release in the city. It's easy to miss its literary appearance: The Bard referenced it exactly once in all his writings. In the first act of Henry IV: Part One, the King forbids his knight Hotspur from mentioning the name of Hotspur's imprisoned brother Mortimer to him. The knight schemes his way around this, saying, "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him to keep his anger still in motion."

Nearly three centuries after those words were first published, Schieffelin lugged 60 imported starlings to Central Park and freed them from their cages. The following year, he let loose a second of batch of 40 birds to support the fledgling population.

It wasn't immediately clear if the species would adapt to its new environment. Not every bird transplanted from Europe did: The skylark, the song thrush, and the bullfinch had all been subjects of American integration efforts that failed to take off. The Acclimatization Society had even attempted to foster a starling population in the States 15 years prior to Schieffelin's project with no luck.

Then, shortly after the second flock was released, the first sign of hope appeared. A nesting pair was spotted, not in the park the birds were meant to occupy, but across the street in the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History.

Schieffelin never got around to introducing more of Shakespeare's birds to Central Park, but the sole species in his experiment thrived. His legacy has since spread beyond Manhattan and into every corner of the continent.

The 200 million descendants of those first 100 starlings are what Zichello and her students made the focus of their research. Over the 2016-2017 school year, the group met for two hours twice a week at the same museum where that first nest was discovered. A quick stroll around the building reveals that many of Schieffelin's birds didn't travel far. But those that ventured off the island eventually spawned populations as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico. By sampling genetic data from starlings collected around the United States, the researchers hoped to identify how birds from various regions differed from their parent population in New York, if they differed at all.

Four student researchers at the American Museum of Natural History
Valerie Tam, KaiXin Chen, Angela Lobel and Jade Thompson (pictured left to right)
(©AMNH/R. Mickens)

There are two main reasons that North American starlings are appealing study subjects. The first has to do with the founder effect. This occurs when a small group of individual specimens breaks off from the greater population, resulting in a loss of genetic diversity. Because the group of imported American starlings ballooned to such great numbers in a short amount of time, it would make sense for the genetic variation to remain low. That's what Zichello's team set out to investigate. "In my mind, it feels like a little accidental evolutionary experiment," she says.

The second reason is their impact as an invasive species. Like many animals thrown into environments where they don't belong, starlings have become a nuisance. They compete with native birds for resources, tear through farmers' crops, and spread disease through droppings. What's most concerning is the threat they pose to aircraft. In 1960, a plane flying from Boston sucked a thick flock of starlings called a murmuration into three of its four engines. The resulting crash killed 62 people and remains the deadliest bird-related plane accident to date.

Today airports cull starlings on the premises to avoid similar tragedies. Most of the birds are disposed of, but some specimens are sent to institutions like AMNH. Whenever a delivery of dead birds arrived, it was the students' responsibility to prep them for DNA analysis. "Some of them were injured, and some of their skulls were damaged," Valerie Tam, a senior at NEST+m High School in Manhattan, tells Mental Floss. "Some were shot, so we had to sew their insides back in."

Before enrolling in SRMP, most of the students' experiences with science were limited to their high school classrooms. At the museum they had the chance to see the subject's dirty side. "It's really different from what I learned from textbooks. Usually books only show you the theory and the conclusion, but this project made me experience going through the process," says Kai Chen, also a senior at NEST+m.

After analyzing data from specimens in the lab, an online database, and the research of previous SRMP students, the group's hypothesis was proven correct: Starlings in North America do lack the genetic diversity of their European cousins. With so little time to adapt to their new surroundings, the variation between two starlings living on opposite coasts could be less than that between the two birds that shared a nest at the Natural History Museum 130 years ago.

Students label samples in the lab.
Valerie Tam, Jade Thompson, KaiXin Chen and Angela Lobel (pictured left to right) label samples with Dr. Julia Zichello.
©AMNH/C. Chesek

Seeing how one species responds to bottlenecking and rapid expansion can provide important insight into species facing similar conditions. "There are other populations that are the same way, so I think this data can help [scientists],” Art and Design High School senior Jade Thompson says. But the students didn't need to think too broadly to understand why the animal was worth studying. "They do affect cities when they're searching for shelter," Academy of American Studies junior Angela Lobel says. “They can dig into buildings and damage them, so they're relevant to our actual homes as well.”

The four students presented their findings at the museum's student research colloquium—an annual event where participants across SRMP are invited to share their work from the year. Following their graduation from the program, the four young women will either be returning to high school or attending college for the first time.

Zichello, meanwhile, will continue where she left off with a new batch of students in the fall. Next season she hopes to expand her scope by analyzing older specimens in the museum's collections and obtaining bird DNA samples from England, the country the New York City starlings came from. Though the direction of the research may shift, she wants the subject to remain the same. "I really want [students] to experience the whole organism—something that's living around them, not just DNA from a species in a far-away place." she says. "I want to give them the picture that evolution is happening all around us, even in urban environments that they may not expect."

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This Russian Kindergarten Looks Just Like a Castle
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A group of lucky kindergarteners in Russia don’t have to wear poufy dresses or plastic crowns to pretend they’re royalty. As Atlas Obscura reports, all they have to do is go to school.

In a rural area of Russia's Leninsky District sits a massive, pastel-colored schoolhouse that was built to resemble Germany's famed Neuschwanstein Castle. It has turrets and gingerbread-like moldings—and instead of a moat, the school offers its 150 students multiple playgrounds, a soccer field, a garden, and playhouses.

Tuition is 21,800 rubles (about $360) a month, but the Russian government subsidizes it to make it less expensive for parents. As for the curriculum: it’s designed to promote social optimism, and each month’s lesson plan is themed. (September, for example, will be career-focused.)

Take a video tour of the school below, or learn more on the school’s website.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]


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