The U.S. Grading System: A Guide for International Students

Updated on March 6, 2024

At a Glance

  • The US grading system assigns letter grades from A to F, indicating the quality of a student’s performance.
  • Numeric grades are also used, ranging from 4.0 to 0.0, with 4.0 being the highest.
  • Variations include standards-based grading, rank-based grading, weighted GPA, and alternative systems like the six-point system or the E-S-N-U system.
  • University grading follows a similar pattern, aiming to provide realistic targets for students, but interpretations may vary depending on the institution and level of education.

To measure varying levels of achievements during and completion of a course, many performance standards are set. A student’s performance may be reflected in terms of number or percentage or even GPA depending on the country’s criterion. The US uses Grading System as in alphabetical letters to reflect on a student’s performance. Now if you are in the US on an F1 visa for studying, let us see what each of these letters means.

US Grading System: An Overview

Your assignment is not the same as you submitted. The one big change is a huge letter on it. The letter defines how good or how bad your assignment was. Grading from A to F, you go from awesome to not-so-awesome. And also, these grades and numerical value range.

The good thing about a grading system is that it is a more realistic target for students, it is easily achievable, and most importantly, it takes the pressure off students’ shoulders. But at the same time, the grading system discourages competition, even the healthy ones. It is a lower accurate reflection of a student’s performance.

Numerical Grades vs. Percentage Grades

Numeric grades, also known as GPA, are yet another way of measuring one’s performance. Generally, a numeric grade is measured at a scale from 0 to 4, 0 being the lowest/failing grade and 4 being the highest grade. Let’s see how we can comprehend numeric grades against percentage grades.

Numeric gradesPercentage grades
0.0Below 65%

General Grading Scale in the US

The customary alphabetical letter grades awarded in a course are A, B, C, D, and F(from highest to lowest). By tradition, the grades are A+ (highest), A, A−, B+, B, B−, C+, C, C−, D+, D, D− and F (lowest).

In primary and secondary schools, “D” is generally the lowest passing grade. However, in some schools, a C becomes the lowest passing grade. In universities and colleges, “D” is considered to be an unacceptable passing grade. A, C, or better grade is required to opt for some major classes toward a degree or meet a prerequisite requirement for a class.

Other Grading System Information

Standards-Based Grading

It has been observed that due to the increasing competition, students get depressed and get bullied because of their marks. Therefore, the need for a system felt that instead of comparing amongst themselves, students might achieve some basic set standard to showcase their abilities.

Accordingly, most states have created patterns of tests in which students are compared to a standard of what their educators, parents have determined to be what every student should know. Students’ grades are categorized as exceeding, meeting, or falling below the standard. Generally, the standard is set at a level that is substantially higher than the previous achievement.

The exams aim to promote inquiry-based science and problem-solving. Grades can be heightened by extra credit scores attained by undertaking supplementary work of their mandatory assignment.

Rank-Based Grading

In contrast to standard-based grading, rank-based grading puts students in direct competition with one another. This is because their achievements are determined according to other students’ performance.

Gradepercentage of students receiving grade
Atop 20 %
Bnext 20 %
Cmiddle 20 %
Dnext 20 %
Fbottom 20 %

One of the sub-model within the rank-based model uses percentages derived from a normal distribution of educational performance, where the top grade, A, is given for a performance that exceeds the mean value by more than 1.5 standard deviations, B for a performance between 0.5 and 1.5 standard deviations above the mean, and so forth. Irrespective of the performance of the students, the best score in the group obtains a topmost grade, and the worst score obtains a failing grade.

Weighted GPA

In order to mirror the varying skill required for different course levels, the concept of weighted GPA was designed to give higher numerical grades for challenging courses. In Weighted GPA, extra points are added for Advanced Placement courses or honors. It denotes that an A in these courses receives 5 points rather than four so the overall GPA can cross 4.0. Examples of these are:

  • A = 5 or 4.5
  • B = 4 or 3.5
  • C = 3 or 2.5
  • D = 2 or 1.5
  • F = 0

Six-Point System

These are defined from 1-6, with 6 as outstanding and 1 as low failure. Generally, below 3 are not used in practice. Grades are described as follows:

  • 6 – Outstanding (High Honor)
  • 5 – Superior (Honor)
  • 4 – Good
  • 3 – Satisfactory
  • 2 – Low Pass, but certifying
  • 1 – Low Failure

Eleven-Point System

Some high schools in the United States even use an eleven-point system. the following grades denote these eleven numeric values:

7B –

The 1-2-3-4 System

Some schools still use 1-2-3-4 rating system as a grading system at the elementary level where 4 is the highest and 1 is the lowest. Since we only want to focus on inducing creativity and learning at the elementary level by doing various activities, academics take second place.

The E-S-N-U System

Roughly around the mid-20th century, the most popular grading system in the United States used was the ESNU system:

  • E (Excellent)
  • S (Satisfactory)
  • N (needs improvement)
  • U (unsatisfactory)

US Letter Grading System

Let’s have a look at the US Grading System and its implied numeric range.

  • “A”- it is the highest grade that one can achieve. And its numeric value ranges from 90% to 100%
  • “B”- this is a pretty good grade too. It is above average actually. The numeric value range is from 80% to 89%. Pretty good, Right!
  • “C”- this one grade is right in the middle, hence an apparent average. The numeric value range that this grade reflects is from 70% to 79%.
  • “D”- a mere passing grade. And the numeric range denomination is from 59% to 69%.
  • “F”- guess what “F” would mean? Absolutely it is a failing grade.

US University Grading System

GradeScaleGrade DescriptionUS Grade
A+4.0 or higherA+
A90.00 – 100.004.0A
B80.00 – 89.993.0B
C70.00 – 79.992.0C
D60.00 – 69.991.0D
F0.00 – 59.990.0F

There Is No “E” Grade

In the United States, grading typically includes A, B, C, D, then F. It is found that E used to be a standard grade which was omitted in the 1930s. The reason was to avoid the confusion of interpreting that with “Excellent.”

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If you are already or planning to be a student in the US educational system on a loan, then you must keep their grading system in mind. Check the grading system that your university is following. Knowing different aspects of your education system will only help you to make an informed decision. Keep your scoring targets crystal clear. 

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Frank Gogol

I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.

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