OAUBS: Grading at FCS

FCS Discovered with Jim Davis, Archivist

So much was new to me when I first arrived at FCS in 1972. Independent Schools, Quakerism, and Upper School teaching all presented shifts in culture and style to which I needed to adapt, and quickly. The most abrupt of these culture shifts involved faculty meetings and the impenetrably arcane grading system. I remember praying someone would explain consensus to me and help me decipher our report cards. These issues were interrelated as faculty meetings were often, very often, taken up with discussions surrounding grading philosophy and report cards. 

Grading and evaluation of students reflect the priorities and values of a school’s mission. A perennial topic of debate, the issue of how to assess student progress leads to several profound questions. What is the truest and most honest mechanism for evaluation? Which method is the least ambiguous system? Isn’t some ambiguity fairer and therefore preferable to narrow certainty? What summation is desirable: Letter grades? Numbers? Narratives? No evaluation of any kind? So many choices; so many ways to demonstrate to the community what the school values and how it measures the development of a student.

I’d like to turn to our archives and examine a few examples of grading systems Friends’ Central has employed over the past 174 years. 159 years, to be precise, as the first report card in our collection dates from 1860. Numbers were used for evaluation at that time, with decimals! Was there really a distinction between 68 and 68.5? Class rank (something we no longer do, I’m relieved to say), is then calculated at the bottom of the column. I happily report that, by 1864, our student had moved up that ladder! On the back of the card, Aaron Ivins, then principal of the boy’s division, remarks that failure to make improvement in academic work could lead to “humiliating results.” One wonders, reluctantly, what might constitute “humiliating” in 1860? Not only is the grading method of interest, but the courses being graded reveal the expectations of the society at the time. Science, language… where are you? What exactly is “Orthography”? (It’s spelling, in case you wondered.) 

So, report cards did reveal those studies the School and the society valued in addition to how those studies were evaluated. Class rank was clearly calculated on that 1860 card. An alumna of 1907 remembers that not only was one’s rank determined, it then became the criterion by which one was seated! (Again, happily, something we no longer do.)

When I was a student, my aunt, a Philadelphia public school educator, promised to pay me a dollar for every A I received on my report card. When I showed her my report card, she was stunned to find out that she was paying me for O’s as she intended and A’s because she said she would. That cash windfall only lasted for one marking period. Love that OAUBS system!

Beth Davis Johnson ’77
Upper School Principal

The next era of reporting at FCS, from the early 1940s to the late 1970s, came about as the result of the national eight-year study – a fascinating topic for another time – which encouraged schools to devise reporting systems that spoke to their particular needs and styles of evaluation. What our school came up with has to be one of the oddest and most idiosyncratic report card in education. On the one hand, categories of evaluation are broken into descriptions of particular ways a student may contribute – orally, written, concern for the community and the like. So far so good. The rest is puzzling, to say the least. What in the world does “OAUBS” stand for? Most educators think of O as Outstanding. But if an A is a top grade, why is it second? If B is a respectable grade, why is it near the bottom? Everything is in relation to the U, which is not Unsatisfactory, as it happens; it is Usual. So, A is Above Usual, B is Below Usual, and S is – wait for it – Seriously Below Usual. Seriously. This took some getting used to for this particular new teacher, and although students took it in stride, relatives were sometimes confused. 

Beth Davis Johnson ’77 (center) and classmates in a sixth grade class photo

“When I was a student,” recalled FCS Upper School Principal Beth Johnson ’77, “my aunt, a Philadelphia public school educator, promised to pay me a dollar for every A I received on my report card. When I showed her my report card, she was stunned to find out that she was paying me for O’s as she intended and A’s because she said she would. That cash windfall only lasted for one marking period. Love that OAUBS system!” 

If the marks were, well, unusual, the method of entering them was cumbersome and time consuming in the extreme. Classes and genders were separated into piles. Each teacher had to enter grades in the appropriate columns. If you were lucky enough to obtain the needed pile from your colleagues, work could continue. If, however, another teacher was working on a grade or gender you needed, you were out of luck. Much horse-trading went on. “I’ll give you the seventh grade girls, if I can have the tenth grade boys,” kind of thing. One teacher (unnamed for her own protection), once took two grades home – a definite breach of etiquette – only to forget them for several days. Chaos reigned. Ill feelings developed. Good times.

Comments (known as “downgrades” in the unvarnished language of the time) were written throughout the year. Now, grades are entered online. Faculty relations have improved as a consequence. 

When grades came up for discussion in faculty meetings, debate often centered on whether grades were really necessary, whether grades were “Quakerly,” whether we were simply serving college admissions offices, and inevitably, why don’t we give pluses and minuses as a more honest reflection of a student’s progress? 

It is easy to smile at these deliberations and dismiss them as pedantic, but they are important and useful exercises for a school. They force us to think deeply about what, exactly, we mean when we say a student has earned (not been given!) a certain grade. What do we hold up as measures of success and goals reached? 

As we know from our archival record, FCS continues to wrestle with this question, and has answered it in many ways. Outstanding!

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