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Studying in the US: Grading Grades

In part 24 of our Foreign Student Series, we discuss evaluation systems at colleges and universities. Transcript of radio broadcast:

This is the VOA Special English Education Report.

This week in our Foreign Student Series the subject is grades.

Most American colleges and universities use the grading system of A, B, C, D and F. An A is worth four points, a B three points, a C two points and a D one point. Getting a grade like a B-plus or a C-minus adds or subtracts a few tenths of a point. An F is a failing grade worth zero toward a student's grade point average.

A small number of colleges -- perhaps about twenty nationally -- reject the traditional grading system. The Evergreen State College, for example, was established in nineteen sixty-seven and has never used letter or number grades. Evergreen State is a public four-year college in the northwestern city of Olympia, Washington. It has more than four thousand students, including twenty-six international students currently.

Evergreen State is organized into programs taught by teams of professors. Each program brings together different subjects and extends in length over two or three quarters. Students are required to do a major research project at the end of each program.

The professors write detailed evaluations of the students. These are combined with evaluations written by the students themselves. Students also meet with their professors to discuss their work.

The director of admissions, Doug Scrima, says employers and graduate schools like these evaluations, called narratives. He says they show more about the quality of students' work than traditional grades do.

Most teachers would probably agree that traditional grades are sometimes unfair. But professors at big schools say there is not enough time to write evaluations for each student in large classes. Some classes have hundreds of students.

Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a small women's school that does not use grades. Kathleen O'Brien is the chief academic officer. She says letter grades do not effectively document learning or provide good direction to students. She says even at big schools there are classes small enough to give evaluations. But she says the American university system is not organized to accept this kind of change.

We will talk more about grades next week. But first, let us know how you feel about grades. You can submit comments on this story and find earlier reports in our Foreign Student Series at

And that's the VOA Special English Education Report, written by Nancy Steinbach. I'm Steve Ember.