French and American grading equivalency for transcripts: Why is it so hard to convert French grades into American grades (and vice versa)?

Published on March 18, 2020 by Charles Eddy, legal translator in Lille

French and American grading both use scales based on multiples of 10, so logically speaking, transferring grades from one system to the other should be simple.

Nothing could be further from the truth, however.

Not only are the values assigned to the scales entirely different (the French 10/20 is a far cry from the American 50/100), but the diversity and odd weighting of the U.S. system—which varies from one state/district/school to the next and essentially only occupies the upper end of the grading scale—associated with the subjectivity and variability of grading in the French system, all make it incredibly hard to find precise correspondences between the two.

Yet students, translators, and university officials are often asked to “translate” grades from the other system for school transcripts or as part of university exchanges. Doing so is never ideal, and in practice, the result is seldom satisfying, but it is also frequently unavoidable.

To explain why this task is so challenging and attempt to surmount some of these difficulties, what follows is a brief primer on the differences between French and U.S. grading, along with an attempt at finding an equivalent for grades between the two systems.

The U.S. Grading System

For starters, a brief primer on the U.S. system.

While the details vary, the basis of the American grading system is the 100-point percentage scale.

This scale is broken down into five letters: A, B, C, D, and F.

In theory, each of the first four letters corresponds to 10% of the scale and F is used for everything below the top 40%:

  • A (90-100%)
  • B (80-89%)
  • C (70-79%)
  • D (60-69%)
  • F (59% and below).

In practice, however, there is a great deal of variation in what the letters are used to mean.

For instance, many school systems or higher-education institutions will use part of the scale for “minus” and “plus” grades (e.g. A-minus = 90-93%).

Some schools also use a stricter scale, in which A=93-100%, B=85-92%, C=75-84%, etc. Often this scale is applied on a county or parish level, so even within a single U.S. state, several different systems can be in place.

What’s more, even in individual schools, different programs such as AP or honors classes can use different scales, and at the college/university level, institutions generally have full discretion to implement their own grading systems.

Generally speaking, a passing grade is a D or above (60+%) in primary and secondary school and a C or above (70+%) in college and university-level courses, although this, too, varies a bit.

While there is obviously a certain level of subjectivity in non-multiple-choice grading, teachers tend to use the system in a relatively consistent way. An A generally corresponds to very high-quality work, a B to above-average work, a C to mediocre work, a D to poor work, and an F to unacceptable work.

For school transcripts, the letter system is also used to calculate students’ overall GPA (grade point average). In this system, A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1, and F=0 (without regard for pluses or minuses). Add up the point total for all classes in a given period, divide by the number of classes, and you obtain the student’s overall GPA. (Incidentally, this system does not account for any of the stricter grading systems described above, putting those students at a disadvantage for entry into competitive schools.)

The French Grading System

In France, grades are out of 20. Ten out of 20, called “la moyenne”, is a passing grade.

Yet contrary to the United States, where 50% is a low F, the moyenne is actually a relatively good grade. Although far from perfect, it essentially means students have met the teacher’s expectations.

In non-multiple-choice situations (essays, math problems, etc.), where grades are discretionary, anything above sixteen is often reserved for only truly exceptional work. Conversely, on multiple-choice quizzes and tests, teachers might see anything below fifteen a poor result, despite being positive for the student’s moyenne.

That being said, things are a bit more complicated.

While French teachers are generally stricter than their American counterparts, there remains a great deal of variation. Some teachers rarely award any grades higher than 14, while others readily dole out 18s (although it bears mentioning that this is rare).

In addition, the grading scale’s real weight is variable depending on where you are attending school, what subject you are taking, and—especially important—whether you are taking or preparing for a competitive exam (concours).

Less demanding schools and programs grade less stringently, and as you move on to more prestigious university programs, just getting a passing grade (above 10/20) becomes a feat.

What’s more, France’s competitive entry exams, called concours, use a far stricter scale. In CPGE schools (preparatory schools that train students for entry into France’s fabled Grandes Ecoles), as well as in concours themselves, the moyenne used can at times be 4/20.

In these cases, a passing grade is a mere 4 and an excellent grade is 8—leaving most of the scale unused.

French school and exam transcripts, though, will just show the grade, not taking into account the reality of how and where it was earned.

The same applies to competitive civil service exams such as the CAPES (teacher’s examination), where you can also successfully pass the exam with 4/20.

Translating Grades Between the French and American Grading Systems

All this contributes to the difficulty encountered in determining what a grade actually means. For non-concours grading, the following table gives a rough indication of equivalency:

French scale U.S. Scale (A-F) U.S. Scale (%) Approximate meaning
16.0-20.0 A+ 98-100% Truly excellent
14.0-15.9 A 93-97% Very good
12.0-13.9 A- or B+ 87-92% Good
10.0-11.9 B 80-86% Average/above average
8.0-9.9 C 70-79% Mediocre
7.1-7.9 D 60-69% Poor
7 and below F 0-59% Unacceptable

These equivalencies should always be taken with a grain of salt, however. American graders can often be very permissive—handing out As with relative ease for only above-average work—whereas French graders are often known for being on the conservative side, at times rewarding outstanding work with only average grades.

Evidently, translators and universities looking for grading equivalents have no way of knowing how individual teachers grade, but these general tendencies might be kept in mind by simply giving less weight to the higher end of the American grading scale and by amplifying “average” French grades that would inevitably have been higher if an American had given them.

In addition, concours grading, will always depend on the concours in question. To translate these grades, it is essential to consult the year’s “rapport du jury” and find the moyenne and the seuil d’admissibilité, which will allow you to get a feel for what an acceptable, average, and good grade is for that particular concours.

Special Mention: Translating “Mention Assez Bien”, “Bien”, and “Très Bien”

In France, in all grade levels and for all competitive exams, there is a special title for those who have overall grade averages of 12-13 (mention assez bien), 14-15 (mention bien), and 16 or above (mention très bien).

These are roughly analogous to the American “honor roll” used in primary and secondary school (the A honor roll for students with all As and the A-B honor roll for students with all As and Bs), or, alternatively, the “Dean’s List” and “President’s List” used at a college or university level.

Although they aren’t necessarily sufficiently close equivalents to allow for direct translation without a footnote, they can make for useful correspondences between the two systems.

Your thoughts?

Transferring grades from one system to another—or even understanding what they’re supposed to mean, for that matter—is not always an easy feat.

How do you go about it?

What do you think about the grading scales mentioned in the article?

Have your own idea about grading equivalents?

How does this compare to grading scales in other French-speaking systems (Quebec, Belgium, Switzerland, etc.) or English-speaking systems (Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, etc.)?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Just leave a comment or discuss the topic with me on Twitter (@ceddytrad) or LinkedIn.

And be sure to share the article with friends and colleagues who might be interested!

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