Education reformer: Our kids aren’t smarter, their grades are being inflated

·3 min read
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A new report from ACT, Inc. indicates that high school GPAs increased markedly between 2010 and 2021.

Though the firm that administers the popular college readiness exam is hardly a neutral authority, its data are beyond dispute. High school is becoming easier, and colleges committed to admissions fairness should revert immediately to a “mandatory testing” model.

Opponents of standardized exams like the ACT and SAT have long alleged that high school GPAs are a better predictor of college success than any single test. While this may once have been the case, it is unlikely to persist given how dramatically GPAs and other prognostic measures have begun to diverge.

As Mark Schneider, director of the statistics and research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, explained in a March blog post, recent gains in grade point average have far outpaced student performance as gauged by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the Nation’s Report Card.

That benchmark, a randomized assessment of students from across the land, is heralded by the Department of Ed as “the only test that can give a true representation of education in our country.”

Yet despite students’ flat or even declining NAEP scores, GPAs continue to climb. According to this year’s NAEP High School Transcript Study, the average high school GPA in 2019 was 3.11, up from 3.00 in 2009. ACT, Inc.’s findings, meanwhile, put the national average at 3.36 in 2021.

Taken together, these data reveal a 12% bump since the turn of the millennium. One would have to be credulous indeed to believe that high schoolers have gotten 12% smarter and more diligent despite being jerked around by No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and a global pandemic that closed schools and sentenced millions to instruction via screen.

Rather, surging GPAs are the clear result of grade inflation, an inevitable consequence of the pressures that teachers face from parents, administrators and politicians. A mere glance at the educational landscape will reveal such plagues on grading accuracy as “no-fail” policies and social promotion.

Yet, even teachers who manage to sidestep these formal protocols must operate in their cultural shadow. When I taught at a private academy in Georgia some years ago, students who maintained a high school GPA of 3.00 qualified automatically for the generous HOPE Scholarship. While rarely explicit, the expectation that teachers keep students above that mark was ever present, like a background noise that one must labor to tune out.

On its current trajectory, grade inflation may eventually sap the high school GPA’s predictive power altogether. Nevertheless, and strangely, university admissions offices are over-relying on grade point averages even as their utility continues to diminish.

Earlier this year, the California State University system announced a permanent halt to the consideration of standardized test scores and pledged to make GPAs the “primary consideration for admission” going forward. Here in the Tar Heel State, the UNC Board of Governors recently voted to extend its current testing “waiver” through 2024.

Though the Massachusetts Institute of Technology declared in March that standardized tests would henceforth be required of applicants once again, it is, as of now, bucking a trend. Not for nothing, however, did MIT cite “equity” in its explanation.

As ACT, Inc.’s May report tersely notes, “Schools with fewer students of color experienced grade inflation at a higher rate across time than schools with more students of color.” Simply put, the declining value of the high school GPA is likely to hurt, not help, minority students. If diversity and fairness really are concerns, university admissions officers should heed that finding.

Graham Hillard is managing editor of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, an N.C.-based education-reform nonprofit.

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