Creating research as high school grades are increasing and less reliable can be a self-service for an exam maker. Yes, this is a fair explanation for why high school students should not be exempted from the rigorous college admission test, but it is further evidence that grade inflation is significant and deserves close attention.
The latest is an analysis of more than 4 million high school seniors who took ACT from 2010 to 2021. Researchers at ACT have calculated that the number of candidates with A has exceeded the number of students with B after 2016. Most ACT examinees, some of whom are not college-bound and take the exam as a required high school assessment.
Achievement decreases with increasing grade. These recent A students, for example, posted lower ACT scores than A students a decade ago. Among the students who scored in the middle and below, there was a decline in achievement across the board. It is a worrying sign that today’s students are not good or hard working and deserve higher grades.
“Even after calculating for all these other reasons, we still see evidence of grade inflation,” said Edgar Sanchez, a researcher at ACT who presented his findings at the annual meeting of the National Council for Education Measurement (NCME) in April 2022. “Something interesting is happening in 2016. At that point, the rate at which grade inflation occurs really increases significantly.”
One flaw in the study is that it relies on self-reported grades that students publish in an optional survey when they register for the ACT. Students may lie, but in recent years lying has suddenly increased so much that it explains the rising grades.
Another bad sign is that the grade inflation detected by the ACT closely reflects the Department of Education’s research. In a study of actual U.S. high school transcripts across the country, the grade point average increased 0.11 points from 3.0 in 2009 to 3.11 in 2019. The study ended just before the epidemic years when ACT researchers identified the fastest grade inflation. Just as the ACT score dropped, so did the 12th grade math score National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a national achievement test. Grade inflation has persuaded the head of the Institute of Educational Sciences, the research arm of the Department of Education, to post a warning on the agency’s website, “Education runs on lies.”
Rising grades are not a new phenomenon. Research to identify sporadic explosions of high school grade inflation dates back to at least the 1970s. The College Board, which conducts SAT, also records grade inflation by comparing SAT scores with high school grades. A 2017 study by a college board researcher found that grade inflation was even worse in affluent schools.
In the new ACT survey, the high school grade point average (GPAs) increased by 0.17 points from 3.22 (a B) in 2010 to 3.39 (a B-plus) in 2021. Grade inflation was fairly moderate in the first half of the 2010s and will start after 2016. High school grades skyrocketed between 2018 and 2021, jumping a full tenth of a point as many schools struggled to grade students during school closures and distance learning disruptions.
At the same time, the average ACT score stands at 20, down one point from 21 in 2010 to 2021. (Top score is 36.) For any given ACT score, students’ grades are increased. For example, a student who scores 25, which is in the top 25 percent of examinees, had an average GPA of 3.5 in 2010, but 3.7 in 2021. A student with a solid B (3.0) average probably has an ACT score of 19 in 2010, but only 15 in 2021.
ACT researchers have considered that the mix of high school seniors taking ACT has changed over the decades and tested to make sure the analysis is not confusing. But after controlling the difference between students and schools, grades among students in each family’s income bracket still increased, poor and rich alike. Black, Hispanic, white and Asian students all achieved higher grades. Grade inflation has occurred in both high school and richer schools. (Depending on the calculation, grade inflation is sometimes seen to be higher among black students than white students, and sometimes higher among the richer students in schools.)
The ACT study does not rely on the bonus points that high schools award for advanced placement or international bachelor class. That means grades are at the top at 4.0 and grade inflation has not been detected in too many ACT scores, which clusters at 4.0 for the entire decade.
It is not clear exactly what happened in 2016 that persuaded many high school teachers across the country to give higher grades. But I think there could be an unintended consequence of the optional movement of the grade inflation test, which collected steam in 2016 because it eliminated the need to submit ACT or SAT scores to more than 900 college applications. The vast majority of colleges later resorted to optional examinations during the epidemic to accommodate students who failed the college examinations. As a result, College admissions officers relied heavily on both grade and advanced coursework to make decisions.
Previous academic research has shown that college admissions tests were not a strong indicator of college readiness and that grades were much better at predicting which students would do well and could help increase diversity on campus. This research, along with the cost and stress of exam preparation tutoring, prompted many colleges to drop out. However, the anti-testing study was conducted prior to the recent rise in grade inflation and it is not yet clear whether the grades will still be a good indicator as much more.
This story about grade inflation is written and produced by Jill Barshe Hatchinger report, A non-profit, independent news organization focusing on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hatchinger newsletter.