ACT study finds grade inflation in high school GPAs over the past decade

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Dive Brief:

  • A new report from ACT finds evidence of grade inflation in high school seniors’ grade point averages between 2010 and 2021, based on analyses of high school GPAs and ACT composite scores of more than 4.3 million students from 4,783 schools.
  • On average, high school GPAs increased 0.19 grade points, from 3.17 in 2010 to 3.36 in 2021. The three-year period between 2018 and 2021 saw more grade inflation than in the preceding eight years, growing by 0.1 grade points, according to the report, which has drawn criticism from advocates of higher education’s test-optional movement.
  • Though GPAs increased, average ACT composite scores continued to decline, in 2021 reaching the lowest average score of the past decade, the report found. 

Dive Insight:

Based on its findings, ACT recommends holistic approaches in college admissions that include both high school GPA and a standardized evaluation — such as the standardized tests provided by ACT and its rival, the College Board’s SAT.

“What we now know is that grade inflation is real. It is systemic, and it weakens the value of student transcripts as a measure of what students know and are able to do,” ACT CEO Janet Godwin told a news briefing Friday. 

A major critic of standardized testing took issue with the ACT report. Bob Schaeffer is executive director of FairTest, an organization that advocates for limited use of standardized exams. He said in an email that the ACT report sets up a straw man to argue against test-optional and test-blind admissions policies, which have grown during the pandemic.

No one is arguing that grade inflation doesn’t exist, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that grading rigor changed quickly at the same time schools added flexibility for students during the pandemic’s disruptions, Schaeffer said. But colleges don’t use high school GPA as their sole admissions factor — they also use college readiness measures like the coursework a student takes, letters of recommendation they submit and essays they write. Further, independent research has shown GPA is a better indicator of college graduation rates than standardized test scores, he said.

The study failed to examine score inflation on the ACT, Schaeffer said. But the organization’s own research shows coaching can boost ACT test scores, he said.

“ACT’s weak arguments in yet another self-serving report ignore the real-world experience of many schools with ACT/SAT-optional and test-blind policies demonstrating increases in student body diversity without any loss in academic quality,” Schaeffer said.

Rising grade point averages don’t have to be seen as a positive or negative, Timothy Quinn, chief academic officer of Miss Porter’s School, a girls boarding school in Connecticut, and the author of “On Grades and Grading,” told EdSurge. They can instead be viewed as an indicator of changing education practices.

Data and research available before ACT’s new study have suggested high school grades and graduation rates may be inflated.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress released in March, high school graduates earned an average 3.11 GPA in 2019, up from 3.00 in 2009 and 2.68 in 1990. While average GPAs, credits attained and the number of completed STEM courses have risen within a decade, the national average score on the 12th-grade math portion of NAEP has declined.

In 2015, NPR conducted a months-long investigation into climbing high school graduation rates, finding various districts and states mislabeled students or offered easier paths to earn a diploma. Some schools, however, are giving students long-term support to legitimately raise graduation rates, NPR reports.

A new study by the Brookings Institution also looked at data from 25 states to understand COVID-19’s impact on high school graduation and college entry rates. It found high school graduation rates remained steady throughout the pandemic, but there was a 16% decline among students immediately starting at two-year colleges and a 6% dip in students going to four-year colleges.

During the pandemic, some teachers have adjusted their grading approaches by allowing students to revise work or lengthen deadlines. Others took on a “do no harm” mindset, so students aren’t penalized for low grades given circumstances outside their control, like a lack of internet access or the need to care for sick family members.

The new ACT study was limited to public schools matched to the National Center for Education Statistics’ Common Core of Data, an annual database of all public elementary and secondary schools and districts. 

The ACT’s recommendation to continue relying on an objective metric for college admissions also comes as more colleges are moving to test-optional or test-blind admissions.

When the University of California System decided in November to no longer use standardized test scores for undergraduate admissions, ACT disagreed with arguments that the move would create greater equity and access for high school students.

ACT told K-12 Dive then that without long-standing and objective testing, there would be an opportunity for more subjectivity and uncertainty in the admissions process.  

UC’s decision, ACT said, “is likely to worsen entrenched inequities and dim the prospects for students from underrepresented populations, in California and beyond, to attend schools in the UC System.”

Yet research has found test-optional policies lead to modest gains in student body diversity. The UC System admitted its most diverse undergraduate class ever in fall 2021, which UC President Michael Drake drew attention to in November.

Elsewhere, data shows students admitted to the University of Missouri for fall 2021 who didn’t submit admissions test scores earned slightly lower GPAs in their first semester than students who did submit scores. But the two groups posted similar retention rates.

Higher Ed Dive Senior Editor Rick Seltzer contributed to this brief.

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