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Grading Basics in the U.S.

October 9, 2013

The first month of school has come and gone. It has been a whirlwind of activity—flying countless hours to the U.S. and not only meeting your family for the next 10 months, but also moving into their home in an unfamiliar city, state, and country. And now, now you are attending a new school, which has a system that you have never encountered before. To ease the stress, let us remind ourselves of resources that we may refer to in order to ensure a successful transition into a school in the U.S.

Grading Systems        

There are two basic types of grading systems: Rank-Based Grading System, often referred to as grading on a curve, and a Criterion-Referenced Grading System.

                Rank-Based Grading System:

                Students are in competition against one another, and a certain percentage of students will be   assigned to each grade in the class.

A (Excellent)

Top 10% of Class

B (Good)

Next 20% of Class

C (Average, Fair)

Next 30% of Class

D (Poor, Pass)

Next 20%

F (Failure)

Bottom 20% of Class

                Criterion-Referenced Grading System:

                Grades are based on individual performances on a set numeric scale, which is usually 100 points.

A (Excellent)

95% – 100%




90% – 100%

B (Good)

85% – 95%

80% – 90%

C (Fair)

75% – 85%

70% – 80%

D (Poor)

65% – 75%

60% – 70%

F (Failure)



For more details on each grading system, check out the U.S. Department of Education website.


Q. What am I being graded on? A. Use your resources!


At the beginning of the school year, each teacher provided you with a syllabus for their class.  A syllabus is an outline of the class, which includes: course description, requirements (exams, homework, participation, papers, etc.), evaluation/grading rubric, course calendar (due dates), required materials (books), etc.  The syllabus is an important document to hold onto during your course of study and will often be referenced as the course progresses.

Student Handbook

It may seem that the student handbook your school provides has an overload of information. However, it is a very valuable source about anything and everything school-related. The handbook will have information including, but not limited to: athletic requirements, attendance requirements, dress code, grading system, transportation, etc. To specifically find information on grades, turn to the Table of Contents. In the Table of Contents, you should see a section titled: Homework, Testing, Grading or something very similar, which will direct you to the appropriate page. If the school did not provide a physical copy of the handbook during orientation, there will be an online version on the school website.    


Be confident, proactive and go outside of your comfort zone to communicate with your teachers. Lee Seedorff, a faculty member at University of Iowa, stated in an interview on international students in Voice of America, that his, “number one suggestion would be: always seek out sources of help. Whether it’s talking to your professors or your teaching assistants if you are struggling in a class, talking to our office, your academic advisor.”

Teachers will expect you to participate and offer your thoughts and opinion on the topic of discussion. In Faculty Focus, Krishna Bista offers her perspective as a former international student , “it was hard for me to believe that my classroom speaking activities were graded.” Teachers are not necessarily concerned with you providing the correct answer. They want to see that you are offering some type of insight on the issue, putting forth effort, and are motivated to do well in your academics!

If you do not fully comprehend an assignment, the grading process, or cannot find the information in your syllabus or handbook, be sure to approach your teachers. Teachers are often available immediately after class for a couple of minutes and would be more than happy to provide clarification on a particular assignment. Perhaps you want to meet with your teacher for a longer period of time— schedule an appointment during their free period or after school.


There is no need to become overwhelmed about entering a new school. Be sure to use your available resources to their full extent— they were given to you with reason!







Bista, Krishna. “A First-Person Explanation of Why Some International Students Are Silent in the U.S. Classroom.” Faculty Focus. Accessed October 9, 2013.

Guest Post. “Helping International Students Through: 5 Questions with International Student Advisor Lee Seedorff.” Voice of America. Accessed September 19, 2013.

“Structure of U.S. Education: Education and Assessment.” U.S. Department of Education Accessed September 19, 2013.

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