Scholars and testing companies have been following grade inflation for decades. The first ACT study on the topic dates to the mid-1990s, while researchers have used SAT data to study grade inflation since the 1970s. Last week saw the newest installment in this series, a report from the ACT called “Grade Inflation Continues to Grow in the Past Decade.”
Following the methods of most previous studies of grade inflation, the study uses ACT scores and self-reported high school grade point average (HSGPA) data from 2010 to 2021 to assess whether the relationship between grades and test scores is changing over time, including during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The study finds that grade inflation is occurring during this period, ticking up considerably after 2016 and then rising sharply during the pandemic. Since 2020, even students at the 25th percentile of ACT performance (i.e., students performing well below average) received better than a 3.0 grade point average, meaning their schools awarded them more A grades than C’s, D’s, and F’s combined. Meanwhile, ACT composite scores declined during the study period and fell markedly during the pandemic.
Grade inflation during this period was not the same for all groups, and this is one point on which this new study diverges from the findings of studies from a few years prior to the pandemic. The new ACT report finds greater grade inflation in schools serving less affluent student populations, whereas researchers from the College Board (which oversees the SAT) and a Fordham report by Seth Gershenson, both of which were released in 2018, found grading standards falling in schools with more affluent student populations. The federal High School Transcript Study that was released in March also found rising GPAs and more rigorous course-taking, even as scores on the gold standard national assessment declined.
(Interestingly, the last ACT study from 2013 also seems to be out of synch with the studies with which it shared overlapping years of data, i.e., the College Board, Fordham, and federal transcript studies, since the previous ACT study did not identify any grade inflation in the years 2004 to 2011, irrespective of school demographics.)
Three explanations for the ACT’s finding that grade inflation is concentrated in higher-poverty schools immediately come to mind. First, the 2021 (and 2013) ACT report both use statistical models that attempt to control for student and school demographics simultaneously, and this approach may lead to somewhat different findings. For example, the new ACT report finds grade inflation strongest for Black students when looking at students but then also for schools serving more White and Asian students. These findings are hard to reconcile, and the authors admit that their methods may lead their findings to diverge from other studies. Second, we know that students attending urban and higher poverty schools were more likely to spend more time in remote learning during the pandemic, and these schools may have relaxed grading standards even more than other schools. That might at least explain some of the differences in the most recent spikes in grade inflation. Third—and perhaps most worryingly—after a decade or so of grade inflation in more affluent schools, students in these schools may be reaching the ceiling of GPA. After all, these students had higher average grades before the bout of grade inflation documented by the SAT researchers and the 2018 Fordham report. And pre-pandemic headlines indicated that many students no longer had much room to improve their GPAs.
If the latter explanation is the correct one—if students in more affluent schools are nearing the GPA ceiling after decades of grade inflation—we can expect that GPA will no longer be as meaningful a signal of academic success, at least in more affluent schools, that it has been in the past.
SOURCE: Edgar I. Sanchez, Ph.D., and Raeal Moore, Ph.D., “Grade Inflation Continues to Grow in the Past Decade,” ACT, Inc (May 2022).