High School Grades: Higher and Higher

Where is grade inflation the highest? At schools where students are more likely than elsewhere to be wealthier and white. Does this create more inequity and uncertainty in admissions?

July 17, 2017

Numerous studies have documented grade inflation in colleges. A study being released today shows that grades are going up in high schools -- in ways that may raise issues for college admissions systems that rely on high school grade point averages. The study also shows that many schools -- especially those educating wealthier students -- are no longer calculating or releasing class ranks, potentially making it more difficult to compare students in an era of grade inflation.

The study finds that the gains in high school GPA raise questions about the ability of colleges to rely on the statistics in college admissions. Further, the study finds that grade inflation in high schools has been most pronounced at high schools with students who are wealthier than average -- and where most students are white.

The study, released today, will be a chapter in Measuring Success: Testing, Grades and the Future of College Admissions, to be published next year by Johns Hopkins University Press. The two authors of the study are Michael Hurwitz, senior director at the College Board, and Jason Lee, a doctoral student at the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia.

The involvement of the College Board in the research may lead some to assume that the study ends up endorsing the use of standardized tests as one way to deal with grade inflation -- and the authors of the study do in fact make that argument. At the same time, they say that the numbers speak for themselves and show grade inflation in high schools to be real. (A prominent critic of standardized testing contests the analysis -- more on that below.)

The research is on students who take the SAT, and the study argues that these are representative of high school students who enroll in four-year colleges. The data come both from the Education Department and from surveys the College Board conducts of students who take the SAT.

A key finding is that, looking at cohorts of high school graduates who finished from 1998 to 2016, the average high school GPA went up from 3.27 to 3.38.

Notably, the gains were unequal among high schools, and the differences appear to favor students from wealthier (and whiter) high schools than average.

The study groups high schools by the magnitude of grade inflation. In the top decile of growth in average GPAs, black and Latino students made up only 22 percent of students on average, and only 32 percent of students were eligible for free lunch. But in the bottom decile of GPA growth, black and Latino enrollments were an average of 61 percent, and more than half of students were eligible for free lunch. The study finds that the average GPA at the high schools with the most grade inflation (top decile) has hit 3.56, while the average at places that haven't seen much grade inflation (bottom decile, largely minority) is 3.14.

In some ways, this mirrors findings about grade inflation in higher education, where a recent study found continued gains in GPAs at four-year colleges, but not at community colleges, which serve many low-income and minority students.

These days, many high schools "weight" GPAs, giving extra points for honors or Advanced Placement courses, and the study finds similar grade inflation in the weighted and unweighted grades.

"High schools that liberally assign high grades may paradoxically disadvantage some students," the study says. "Such grade inflation blurs the signal of high grades on a transcript, meaning that the students whose performance truly justifies A grades are not easily discernible from students with more modest classroom performance."

And these findings should alarm admissions officials, the study says. "If all transcripts are replete with A grades, without standardized tests, admissions staff would be tasked with the impossible -- using high school GPA to predict whether the student will thrive academically."

The authors of the study also look at the data another way, to show that the gains in GPAs aren't from more B-minus averages becoming B-plus grades, but are due to more A grades.

Here, the authors find that the proportion of students with A averages (including A-minus and A-plus) increased from 38.9 percent of the graduating class of 1998 to 47 percent of the graduating class of 2016. Those gains came from the B and C ranges.

Of course, the authors acknowledge in their study, there could be a reason for the grade inflation that would make educators celebrate. What if students are smarter or are being better educated, and so are earning their better grades? The authors reject these possibilities, and cite SAT scores to do so. If students were learning more, their SATs should be going up, or at the very least remaining stable. But during the period studied, SAT averages (math and verbal, 1,600-point scale) fell from 1,026 to 1,002.

In interviews, the authors of the study said that they didn't have an explanation for the grade inflation. Their focus, they said, was on the data, not the reasons why. They said they hope people will do further research, talking to teachers and others, to look for explanations.

While the authors said they didn't think many educators would be surprised that grade inflation is present in high schools, they said it was important to look at the variation among high schools, a circumstance that has received less attention.

High schools "most prone to grade inflation are the resourced schools," Lee said, "the ones with the highest level of affluence." For those at high schools without resources, generally with lower GPAs, grade inflation elsewhere "puts them at a disadvantage in the college admissions process."

Hurwitz, asked about the College Board's inclination to favor standardized tests, said that it's true the organization runs the SAT. "We're not saying you should just ignore grades. But what we are saying is that it is important we have some sort of standardized measure like the SAT," he said. "Right now where we see high school grades is enormous variation among high schools and variation of grade inflation."

The Role of Class Rank

One way of dealing with grade inflation might be more reliance on class rank, especially if there are data on the averages of students at different ranks. "Class rank, based on high school GPA, adds important context to student grades," the study says. "Achieving a B average at a high school without grade inflation might prove a more impressive feat than earning all A grades at a comparable high school with rampant grade inflation."

But using data from the National Student Clearinghouse and the Education Department, the study finds that a majority of those who attend the most competitive colleges come from high schools where class rank is "suppressed." In contrast, a solid majority of those at less selective colleges come from high schools still releasing class ranks. And the study notes a relationship between wealth and these trends, with many of those coming from high schools that don't release rank coming from private schools.

Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest: National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a longtime critic of the College Board, was not impressed by the study, which he said in an interview was an attempt by the College Board "to stave off the test-optional movement."

He said that the only part of the study he considered to be "a new wrinkle" was the information about grade inflation being most prevalent at high schools with wealthier, less diverse students than at other high schools. But he noted that many of the colleges that have dropped SAT or ACT requirements in recent years have found enrollments of minority and low-income students going up.

These colleges, he said, "know that no standardized exams are needed to make fair, accurate admissions decisions."


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