TT: Grades That Aren’t Marks

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back and come for a walk in my garden.  Then wander along as Alan and I explore the mysteries of grades and hit on some remarkable tangents along the way.

ALAN: We were talking about grade school, high school, and how they divide

Whatever You Call Them


JANE: Okay.  This gets weird, especially since (based on talking to my sisters who have grammar school-aged children) some of the details seemed to have changed since I was a kid.  Or maybe it’s just different states.  Hopefully, our readers will offer some additional details.

Required school starts with first grade, around the time a child is six.

However, most kids go to kindergarten, which starts at age five.  Kindergarten used to be basically play with, maybe, learning alphabet and numbers, but based on what I’ve heard my nieces and nephews are involved with, it seems a lot more ambitious now.

Many parents opt for preschool as well.  This can start as young as three.  It’s often only a few days a week and not a full day.  The curriculum deals with learning to play with others and not running with scissors and suchlike important life skills.  Because the children are so young, it often included a nap.  I can still remember the feel of lying on the nap pad (rather like today’s yoga pad) on the floor.

With me so far?

ALAN: Yes – we have exactly the same thing. Though, given our propensity to abbreviate, New Zealanders refer to kindergarten as “kindy.” Proper school starts at age five rather than six and it’s known as primary school.

JANE: You know,  I think the term primary school is used here, too.  Jim says he called it “elementary school.”

As I said, first grade is where “real” school starts.  That’s where I learned to read, though many children are pressed to learn earlier.  Learning to read at age six certainly didn’t slow me down.  In fact, I accidentally taught my younger sister Ann how to read.

ALAN: Fascinating! A young boy who lives just up the road from us came home very upset from his first day at primary school. When questioned, he said that he was expecting to be taught how to read on his first day, and it hadn’t happened! So how did you manage to shield Ann from that particular trauma?

JANE: There’s really very little credit to me.  I’d come home from school and tell Ann (who is two grades behind me) what I’d done that day.  She soaked it all up and was reading pretty well at age four. She also started writing then, including her name in script.  To this day, she has excellent handwriting.

ALAN: A dying skill. Nobody seems to write by hand any more. And on the rare occasions when people do, they are obviously very uncomfortable with it. They don’t seem to know how to hold a pen properly and I would imagine that the strain on their wrists and fingers makes writing very uncomfortable for them. When I was little, we actually had formal lessons in how to hold a pen. And I’m very grateful for that. I can write in longhand for hours and hours with no sense of strain whatsoever.

JANE: My handwriting is lousy and those classes were a real trauma.  However, I firmly value the skill.  To this day, many of my stories start in handwritten form rather than on my computer.  It’s as if the circuit connecting my brain to my imagination is more closely tied to handwriting than to typing.

ALAN: I always carry a notebook with me and I jot down things as they occur to me – snatches of overheard conversation,  random thoughts that drift into my head and which have a tendency to drift out again immediately unless I pin them down in words. That sort of thing. In fact I filled up my latest notebook just the other day and I intend to buy another one soon. I feel naked without a notebook in my pocket…

It’s always struck me as massive overkill to use a computer for that sort of thing.

JANE: And maybe, for people like you and me who started out writing, not typing, a computer might not work as well.  It might be different for the current crop.

Okay.  Back to terms for different stages or “grades” in school…  I went to Catholic school, so the sequence was grades 1-8 as “grammar school.”  Then came “high school.”  This began at about age fourteen.  Here “grades” stopped being called grades.  Instead, students were termed freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

An aside…  In “public” school – which is nothing like your public school – the breaks were different.  Grades one through six were “elementary school.”  Grades seven and eight were “junior high.”  Nine through twelve were “high school” or sometimes “senior high.”

The term “sophomore” is derived from the Greek word for “wise fool.”   It’s supposed to indicate that “know-it-all” phase teenagers go through at about age fifteen.  Why it was put in there when all the other terms are standard English, I have no idea.

Oddly, to me, when I went to college, some of my classmates referred to “tenth grade” or “twelfth grade,” so the terms my school used were apparently not universal.  However, by college, grades are abandoned and the terms freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior are used.

Or were…  I hear that a lot of kids are now taking more time to get through college, so maybe those terms will die out as well.

ALAN: So the grade refers to the year of schooling and hence the age of the child. I see. In England, primary school runs from age 5 to 11 and secondary school from age 11 to 18 (though the official leaving age is 16 for those who don’t want to continue their education). Primary school organisation is mildly chaotic though it does centre around teaching by age.

In secondary school we refer to form one, form two etc which would probably correspond roughly to your grade seven and onwards. Interestingly in England, form six (ages 17 and 18) is referred to as first year sixth and second year sixth. New Zealand is much more sensible; they call these year six and year seven (New Zealanders tend to say “year” rather than “form”).

By the time we get to university (generally around age 18, though a lot of people take a year off first) it all gets much simpler. First year, second year etc. No fancy words. Thanks for clearing up “sophomore” – that one has always puzzled me as well.

JANE: My pleasure…  I take a sophomoric delight in knowing the right answer.

ALAN:  I’m not finished with my questions yet… so perhaps you will get to show off some more!

JANE: I’d love the chance.  However, right now I need to go write.   Besides, I’m hoping our readers will offer some variations on other educational systems for your amusement.


10 Responses to “TT: Grades That Aren’t Marks”

  1. Ann M Nalley Says:

    Please have Alan and Jane discuss “O” Levels and “A” levels, and then at university “first,” “second,” “third!” Always confusing for me! An entertaining and heartwarming post!

  2. Katie Says:

    Now I think the break is mostly: K-5 = elementary school, 6-8 = middle school, 9-12 = high school. But terminology and breaks between schools seem to vary a lot from school district to school district. I know one district here in Tulsa has sixth graders and ninth graders on their own separate campuses, so it’s K-5, 6, 7-8, 9, 10-12. I think this is mostly because they just have so many students.

    We referred to the high school grades with both names interchangeably; that is, one is equally likely to say one is in ninth grade or a freshman in high school.

    When I was that age, Kindergarten was a half-day program; you went either in the morning or the afternoon. Now it seems to be a full-day program, I think because more moms are working outside the home and they don’t want to have to pay for half days of daycare.

  3. Deborah N Says:

    The way I see the divisions in the US schools is elementary, middle, jr high, and high school. Where they divide and how many of the divisions they have depend on the size of the campuses and the number of students. Where I was in school from sixth grade through graduation, started out with 1-7 as elementary (no public K) and 8-12 as high school (8 was also called sub-freshman). By the time I graduated the two city school systems had merged (the 60’s in the south) and the once black high school became a middle school and the 8 grade was part of the middle school as was the higher elementary grades. (I think it was 5-8.)

    College: Your label as freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior is based on the number of credits you have completed. With many teens now taking advance placement course in high school, many become sophomores during their first year. Those going part time might be at the end of their second year or even at the end of their third year before they are sophomores.

  4. Peter Says:

    Hmm…guessing the terminology in the English system has changed since I was there. When I was sentenced to a year in a London school it was “upper/lower”: “Lower Sixth” was the first year and Upper Sixth” was the second (same for the earlier forms).

    • Alan Robson Says:

      It does tend to vary a bit from school to school. The commonest system is that forms one to five are usually referred to as the A and B streams (or sometimes even C as well, depending on the numbers). However the sixth form is generally not streamed and its members are referred to as an amorphous lump. First year sixth, lower sixth and even six-one are all synonyms, as are second year sixth, upper sixth and six-two.

      And don’t get me started on the complexities of remove forms…


  5. heteromeles Says:

    Well, if one is inclined to believe Wikipedia (and I do in this case, because my cousin teaches middle school, and this mostly jibes with what she’s told me), here’s the difference between Junior High and Middle School:

    “Junior high schools were created for the purpose of “bridging the gap between the elementary and the high school,” a concept credited to Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard University. The faculty is organized into academic departments that operate more or less independently of one another. The middle school movement in the United States saw this model as inadequately addressing the intended purpose of transition by maintaining an emphasis on the high school model, as reflected in the “junior high” designation.

    “The middle school concept often involves a group of two to eight teachers, depending on the school, from different disciplines working as a team with the same group of students of the same grade level, with each teacher teaching a different subject. This format facilitates interdisciplinary units, where part or all of the entire team teaches on the same general topic from the perspective of different disciplines. The middle school philosophy also advocates assigning students in each team to a homeroom. By having homeroom daily for various discussions and activities, middle schools try to foster a sense of belonging in students to ease social and emotional difficulties during adolescence.

    “Middle school in North America carries with it associations of personal and emotional difficulty. Physical and hormonal changes that accompany adolescence are exacerbated by newfound self-consciousness, social pressures, and the desire for conformity and identity.”


  6. janelindskold Says:

    Heavens! I realized it was complicated, but I hadn’t realized all the elements that contributed…

    In informing Alan, I’m learning a lot myself.

    One thing that I’ve noticed is that the dates at which school starts vary a lot. Here in NM the kids go back in mid-August. That seems WAY too early… And it must make it tough for families transferring in from places where school starts after Labor Day — in September.

    By the way, we will get to O Levels and A Levels… It’s just Alan has a few more questions before I get a turn!

  7. Paul Says:

    It seems to me that we used to return to school in maybe late August but probably early September, back in the “old days.” I think the school year got extended at both ends because of so many snow days that had to be made up. These days, year-round warmer weather seems prevalent so maybe we’ll go back to the old calendar.

  8. CBI Says:

    I think that heteromeles has done a good job on explaining the purported rationales, but I think the main difference between districts that have “junior high school” and “middle school” is the available buildings compared to the age distribution of the students.

    (I’m one of those who never attended kindergarten, grades 1-3 at a public school, grades 4-8 at a parochial (Lutheran) school, grade 9 at a “junior high school”, and grades 10-12 at a “senior high school”. Believe it or not, my post-secondary education was even more messed up!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: