How newly rising grade inflation may be skewing our view of students

Grade inflation didn't get much attention during the pandemic but there is clear evidence it occurred, a new analysis has found.
By: | May 16, 2022

Grade inflation didn’t get much attention during the pandemic but there is evidence it occurred even as educators grappled with learning loss, a new analysis has found. Researchers have detected substantial inflation of high school grade point averages in 2020 and 2021 though linking that directly to the pandemic is difficult, according to an analysis released on Monday by ACT, the provider of the standardized college entrance exam.

“Every student deserves a report card that tells the whole story of their success,” Janet Godwin, the CEO of ACT. “Grade inflation calls into question whether we can rely on GPAs to measure academic achievement and predict performance.”

Researchers have defined grade inflation as “the assignment of grades that do not align with content mastery.” The average high school grade point average, or HSGPA, increased from 3.22 in 2010 to 3.39 in 2021. As a comparison, the average ACT Composite score for each graduating class from 2010 to 2021 decreased by almost a point—from 21.0 in 2010 to 20.3 in 2021. A rise in GPAs, but not test scores, is clear evidence of grade inflation, the authors of ACT’s analysis concluded.

A deeper dive into the numbers revealed disparities along ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Black students experienced a greater degree of grade inflation than white students. Also, students from low- and moderate-income families also had higher rates of grade inflation than students from high-income families. At the building level, schools with fewer students of color and schools with a higher proportion of students receiving free and reduced lunch showed higher grade inflation. ACT researchers added, however, that they don’t have enough data yet to explain these variations.

Also unclear are the reasons for the escalation of grade inflation in 2020 and 2021. Testing was limited in the months after the initial COVID outbreak in spring 2020, when almost all schools had closed for remote instruction, but rebounded in 2021 when the pandemic was better controlled, the researchers noted.

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GPAs were also likely altered by changes in grading policies during the pandemic, particularly if those policies were applied differently at the district, school and individual student levels. “It may be more appropriate to use grades as broad pass/fail signals or as holistic indicators of students’ preparation as opposed to precise measures of academic achievement,” the researchers wrote.

Grade inflation remains a “persistent, systemic” problem, in part because GPAs are a highly unstandardized measure into which teachers add assessments of a student’s class participation and effort. “In the college admissions context, this means that the 4.0 from one school may not indicate the same level of content mastery as a 4.0 from another school,” the researchers wrote. On the other hand, those non-academic characteristics can also provide college admissions teams with valuable indicators of a student’s overall abilities, the researchers wrote.

Godwin acknowledges that the data may seem self-serving in that it could be seen as encouraging district administrators to continue conducting standardized testing—even as more colleges go test-optional. But, she added, ACT has a unique set of data that can contribute to the national conversation about measuring student success more precisely and fairly. The company’s goal is to give high school students a complete picture of their academic achievements as they plan their future studies.

ACT is recommending colleges conduct holistic admissions evaluations that examine the whole student through GPAs, standardized tests and other factors. “This approach promotes access, equity, and diversity and is based on the premise of increasing the number of factors considered, not removing them,” the analysis concludes.

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