Will that be letters or numbers? Grading systems frustrate students

Some Nova Scotia students aren't really sure what the letter at the top of their paper really means


When Saint Mary's University student Mariek Kocay gets a paper back, she dreads the big bold letter staring back at her. She knows her converting skills must be up to par.

The 19-year-old from Toronto received percentage grading throughout high school and finds it difficult to adjust to the difference in grading techniques.

"I'm not a fan of the letter-grading system," she says. "I prefer to see a number because it's more specific. With letters, all you really know is an approximation of how you did."

Most post-secondary schools in Nova Scotia use a letter-grading system, with the exception of community colleges, according to a Simon Fraser University webpage that charts grading systems at Canadian universities.

Other schools, including Saskatchewan universities and many in Eastern Canada, use either percentages or grade point averages.

All Canadian high schools use either a percentage grading system or a combined system of both letter and percentage grades.

If you are one of the many students who has recently graduated from a high school or moved from a different province where percentage grading is used, the adjustment can be frustrating.

Some, like Kocay, believe percentage grading is a more accurate way of gauging a student's performance.

"Percentages are much more direct. Instead of an A you can have an 84 or an 89. Those are two different marks. But with letter grading, you'll never know."

Every university has its own inferences as to why its school uses the system it does.
Russell Isinger, the University of Saskatchewan's director of academic services and financial assistance, says faculty members play a large role in choosing what grading systems to use.

The associate vice president and registrar for Saint Mary's, Paul Dixon, believes letter- grading is a universal system that lends itself well to converting, especially in different parts of the world.

"Letter grades have a near universal interpretation: A equals excellent, B equals good, C equals satisfactory, D equals marginal/pass and F equals failure. I can look at transcripts from all around the world and they almost always have the exact interpretation."

Dixon says this is problematic when it comes to percentage grades, because there is a wider range of choices for what each letter could represent.

Tara King, a first-year Saint Mary's student from Coquitlam, B.C., is used to percentage grading but likes the idea of letter grades.

"Each letter grade counts for a range of marks. It's consistent throughout all programs and classes, so I don't really see any problems with it."

According to the Saint Mary's academic calendar, the grade scale is:

  • A+: 90-100
  • A: 85-89
  • A-: 80-84
  • B+:77-79
  • B: 73-76
  • B-: 70-72
  • C+: 67-69
  • C: 63-66
  • C-: 60-62
  • D: 50-59
  • F: 0-49

Although different classes used to have different grade-percentage conversions, there's now an established scale for all classes.

As for Kocay, she says it will take a couple of months for her fears over the bold brazen letters to subside.


March 16, 2009: Clarified grade scale range.

Comments on this story are now closed

So an A represents 80 to 100 percent? That's a pretty substantial margin to guesstimate within. You'd think that at an academic level accuracy and precision are somewhat important, if not for the numbers on the transcript at least for the student wondering where they stand.

Posted by Devo. | Dec 15, 2021