What Is A Failing Grade In The U.S. Grading System?

What is a failing grade in the U.S.? Most education institutions follow a general guideline where a score below 64% translates to an F (failing).

Grading systems play an important role in evaluating students' performance and achievement. The US Department of Education doesn't set a specific failing grade for all universities. Instead, most institutions adhere to the common guideline that a failing grade (F) is below 64%. This grade indicates several potential issues, including challenges with the teaching approach, personal obstacles, or broader systemic issues. Therefore, it's important to understand what a failing grade is and its implications for a student's academic progress.

What Is A Failing Grade?

A failing grade is a mark on an assignment, test, or overall course that indicates a student's performance fell below the minimum acceptable level. The specific designation for a failing grade depends on the educational system.

  • Letter grade system: In many schools and education institutions in the United States, "F" is the most common failing grade.
  • Percentage grade system: Schools might establish a minimum percentage score, such as 60%, 64%, or 70%, to determine if a student has failed.
  • Pass/Fail system: Some courses might use a simple pass/fail system, where "Fail" signifies a performance that doesn't meet the basic requirements.

Failing Grades In Different Grading System

In the U.S. grading system, the specific system employed by an institution significantly impacts how failing grades are determined. Here's a closer look at some prevalent grading systems and their role in identifying failure:

Numerical Grading System (0–100% or Points):

This system assigns numerical values (percentages or points) to reflect a student's performance on assessments. It allows for a fine-grained evaluation, pinpointing performance levels with greater precision compared to letter grades.

  • A - the highest grade achievable on an assignment, falling between 90% and 100%.
  • B - the commendable grade, indicating above-average performance, scored between 80% and 89%.
  • C - the average grade, lying between 70% and 79%.
  • D - the passing grade, representing performance between 65% and 69%.
  • F - the failing grade, signaling the need for further study and improvement.

Each institution establishes a minimum percentage, or point threshold, to define failure. For instance, a school might set 65% as the minimum passing score, resulting in anything below 65% being considered a failing grade.


Offers detailed feedback on performance levels.
Allows for potential "curve adjustments" based on class averages, potentially mitigating harsh failures.


Can be susceptible to student anxiety and an overemphasis on specific numbers rather than overall understanding.
May not translate well across different institutions with varying grading scales.

Letter Grading System (A, B, C, D, F)

This widely used system employs letter grades (A representing the highest achievement and F signifying failure) to categorize student performance. Each letter grade typically corresponds to a specific percentage range (e.g., A = 90–100%, B = 80–89%, etc.).
The letter grade "F" denotes a failing performance, indicating the student's achievement falls below the minimum acceptable level. Some institutions might use additional modifiers (A-, B+, etc.) to provide further nuance within each grade category.


  • Offers clear and concise communication of performance levels.
  • Easier for students and parents to understand compared to complex numerical scales.


  • Can lack the granularity of numerical systems, potentially masking areas where a student struggles within a broad grade range.
  • The specific percentage range associated with each letter grade might vary across institutions, leading to potential confusion.

Pass/Fail Grading System

This simplified system focuses on achieving a minimum standard for course credit. Students receive either a "Pass" (meeting the requirements) or a "Fail" (not meeting the requirements).
The emphasis is on mastery of core concepts rather than specific grades. A "Fail" indicates the student hasn't grasped the essential material and won't receive credit for the course.


  • Reduces student stress and anxiety associated with numerical grades or letter grades.
  • Encourages a focus on learning and understanding over achieving a specific grade.


  • Offers limited feedback on performance beyond a pass/fail binary.
  • Might not be suitable for courses where grades play a crucial role in transcripts or scholarship eligibility.

The Importance Of Grading Systems In Determining Failure

Regardless of the specific system employed, a well-defined grading system is essential for establishing clear benchmarks for what constitutes a failing grade. It offers a consistent and objective way to assess student performance across different instructors and courses. This consistency is crucial because:

  • Provides fairness and transparency: A standardized grading system ensures everyone involved (students, teachers, and parents) has a clear understanding of the minimum acceptable level of achievement. This helps to avoid confusion or disputes regarding failing grades.
  • Facilitates communication: Grading systems provide a common language for educators to communicate student progress and areas needing improvement to parents and students themselves. This allows for targeted interventions and support mechanisms to be implemented.
  • Motivates improvement: Clearly defined failing grades can serve as a wake-up call for students who are underperforming. Recognizing a failing grade can motivate them to seek help, adjust study habits, and strive for improvement.

Factors Contributing to Failing Grades

While failing to meet the minimum passing requirement is the ultimate outcome, several factors can lead a student down that path:

Lack of understanding of the course: This is a core reason for failing grades. Students who struggle to grasp fundamental concepts or lack the necessary skills to apply their knowledge effectively will likely fall behind in their coursework. This can stem from various reasons, such as difficulty with the subject matter itself, inadequate explanations from instructors, or missing key lessons due to absences.

Poor study habits: Strong study habits are essential for academic success. Students who lack effective study techniques, procrastinate on assignments, or fail to manage their time efficiently are more prone to falling grades. This can involve inefficient studying methods, inadequate preparation for exams, or neglecting crucial homework assignments.

External factors: Sometimes, factors beyond a student's control can contribute to failing grades. These might include personal issues like family problems, emotional difficulties, or even health problems that hinder their ability to focus or attend classes regularly. Additionally, unforeseen circumstances like financial hardship or a lack of access to necessary learning resources can also play a role.

The disrupted learning due to COVID-19 has also led to a significant drop in grade point averages among many high school juniors and seniors in the U.S. This drop is affecting disadvantaged students, minorities, first-generation college students, and rural students, who are often the focus of selective college recruitment efforts. Failure rates have increased dramatically since spring 2020, with reports showing significant jumps in failing grades in various regions. Reasons for this increase include unpreparedness for distance learning, lack of access to technology or the internet, increased responsibilities at home, and confusion about managing different expectations from teachers.

Consequences Of Failing Grades

Failing a grade can feel like a punch in the gut, but it's important to remember that it's not the end of the road. However, failing grades do carry consequences that can impact you both academically and emotionally. Let's delve deeper into these potential repercussions:

Impact on the academic journey

  • Retaking the course: One of the most direct consequences of failing a class is that you need to retake it. This can add extra time and financial burden to your academic journey.
  • Delayed graduation: Failing a class can push back your graduation date. This can have a domino effect, potentially delaying other plans like starting a job or pursuing further education.

Impact on Psychology

  • Stress and anxiety: The fear of failing and the weight of a bad grade can be a big reason for stress and anxiety. This can make it difficult to stay focused on other classes and negatively impact your overall well-being.
  • Impact on self-esteem: Failing a class can take a toll on your self-esteem. It's easy to feel discouraged and question your real abilities.

How To Avoid Failing Grades?

Failing grades can be a major setback, but the good news is that they're largely avoidable. By implementing a combination of effective studying, smart time management, and a willingness to seek help, you can set yourself up for academic success. Here are some key strategies to consider:

  • Participate in class regularly: Attending every class is the very first requirement. Not only will you stay up-to-date on the material, but you'll also gain a deeper understanding of concepts as the teacher explains them. Imagine this: Your biology class is dissecting a frog. While the textbook can explain the anatomy, witnessing the dissection firsthand and asking questions about the process provides a much richer learning experience.
  • Actively discuss in the class: Don't be a passive listener in class. Participate in discussions, ask clarifying questions when something seems confusing, and don't be afraid to voice your thoughts. The more engaged you are, the better you'll grasp the knowledge.
  • Have a smart study plan: Studying all night before an exam can cause stress and forgetfulness. Instead, creating a smart study schedule is better. For example, you have a history exam next week covering three chapters. Break down the material by allocating specific days to review each chapter. This spaced repetition will solidify the information in your long-term memory. Use study aids like flashcards, and diagrams, or even form a study group to discuss and reinforce learning.

These are just the first steps on your path to academic success. Besides, you may try additional strategies like seeking help when needed, staying organized, and managing your time effectively!

In conclusion, each educational institution establishes a minimum acceptable level of performance, expressed through the chosen grading system. As discussed above, this might be a specific percentage threshold in a numerical system, a designated letter grade (like "F"), or simply achieving a "Pass" status.