New findings from an upcoming study from Michael Hurwitz of the College Board and Jason Lee of the University of Georgia show that, while high school grades have been rising for decades, SAT scores have continued to fall. It’s not that achievement is strengthening; it’s that grades are inflating, particularly among high schools enrolling our most advantaged students.
The study was born of (1) variation between high schools on the awarding of grades and a suspicion that students are not making the kind of gains that their GPAs suggest; (2) a general increase in A’s, which makes it harder to identify high achievers; and (2) how this complicates colleges’ admissions decisions.
The authors sought to document trends in grade inflation and the suppression of GPA-based class rank information over the past two decades. They examined high school GPAs among SAT test takers reported on the College Board’s Student Data Questionnaire, as well as descriptive data from three federal surveys: the National Educational Longitudinal Survey of 1988, the Educational Longitudinal Survey of 2002, and the High School Longitudinal Survey of 2009. They also looked at the high school class ranks of incoming freshmen, as reported by colleges through the Annual Survey of Colleges, collected by the College Board.
They found that typical high school grades are higher than ever and have been trending upward for at least twenty-five years, according to these and earlier findings from the U.S. Department of Education. From 1998 to 2016, the average high school GPA rose from 3.27 to 3.38. The share of SAT test-takers with high school GPAs in the A-range rose from 39 to 47 percent. Yet during the same period, average SAT scores on the 1600 scale (math and verbal) declined from 1026 in 1998 to 1002 in 2016.
The study grouped high schools depending on the degree of grade inflation present, showing that gains varied among high schools. Schools in the top decile of high school GPA growth showed an average GPA of 3.56 and were more likely to represent white and Asian students at a higher socioeconomic level than the lowest decile of schools, with an average GPA of 3.14.
Authors also found a rapid decline in colleges reporting the high school class rank of their incoming students, and that this decline was more dramatic for the nation’s most competitive universities, where the fraction of entering students with class rank declined by more than 20 percentage points between 2005 and 2015. (There was only a 3 percentage-point drop among less competitive colleges during the same time period.) Placing a student’s high school GPA in context with their peers by showing class rank can add important extra information for college admissions officers, especially where grade inflation may be present. It’s no secret that many young Americans are entering college woefully unprepared for its rigor, and grade inflation may be partly to blame. Standardized tests like the SAT aren’t perfect gauges of college readiness, but this study suggests that they’re needed now more than ever alongside inflated and often unreported GPAs.
SOURCE: Michael Hurwitz and Jason Lee, “Grade Inflation and the Role of Standardized Testing,” in Measuring Success: Testing, Grades and the Future of College Admissions, Johns Hopkins University Press (embargoed until release in January 2018).