Student Achievement What the Research Says

Pace of Grade Inflation Picked Up During the Pandemic, Study Says

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 16, 2022 4 min read
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High school grade inflation ratcheted up in 2019 and the pace accelerated during the pandemic, according to ACT, the national college testing group.

The findings echo a recent federal study that also showed signs of grade inflation, and highlight one more hurdle for high school students trying to regain their academic footing after credit and graduation disruptions caused by the pandemic.

“Grade inflation is a persistent, systemic problem, common across classrooms, districts, and states,” said Janet Godwin, ACT’s chief executive officer. “Students work hard to earn the highest grades possible so that their high school GPA, a cumulative measure of what students know and can do, makes them eligible for advancement in sequenced courses and ultimately a high school diploma. Grade inflation upends the reliability of that measure.”

Edgar Sanchez, a senior research scientist at ACT, analyzed data from 4.3 million students from more than 4,700 schools, who took the ACT between 2010 and 2021 and graduated from public high schools. The average cumulative high school GPA rose every year during that period, from 3.17 out of 4 in 2010 to 3.36 out of 4 in 2021. However, the mean composite test scores for the ACT fell during the same period, and Sanchez found the gap between rising GPAs and falling standardized test scores accelerated beginning in 2018.

“We did see grade inflation ... across the entire 10 years,” Sanchez said, but added that “since 2020 and 2021, there seems to be this real substantial increase in grade inflation. We really need to think about, what are the national trends or national pressures that are going on that have been influencing grades in the last couple of years, and what implications that might have to grading standards and to how those grades are really interpreted and used.”

States gave districts wide flexibility in setting graduation requirements during the last two years, and districts have varied significantly in how they have handled grading and end-of-course testing for students who moved in and out of remote instruction. Sanchez also noted that the kinds of students who were able to take the ACT during the disruption may differ than those in previous years.

Grade inflation increased faster for girls than boys, and faster for Black students than those of other races, ACT reported. However, Sanchez found grade inflation also increased faster for schools where 75 percent or more of the students were white or Asian-American. He said there would need to be additional analyses to determine whether students of color at majority-white schools had disproportionately inflated grades within their schools, compared to other students.

ACT’s findings echo those of a national high school transcript study, which the Education Department’s research agency released in March. That study, by the National Center for Education Statistics, calculated GPAs individually for students taking different kinds of coursework, such as college-preparatory or career-technical education.

The federal study found similar trends as ACT. Though the graduating class of 2019 had taken on average more-challenging coursework and achieved the highest GPAs in more than a decade, there had been declines in 12th grade performance in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the set of tests often dubbed the “Nation’s Report Card.”

In fact, according to the NCES, which administers the NAEP, little more than 1 in 3 high school seniors who took the test in 2019 performed well enough in math and reading to be considered ready to start college with nonremedial courses in those subjects.

That’s one reason grade inflation in high school can hurt students in the long run. Nearly 42 percent of all students starting college have to take at least one remedial course, and 65 percent of students starting public two-year degree programs must do so, according to the most-recent NCES estimates. These classes can be expensive and don’t generally count toward a student’s degree. Studies have found that the more remedial classes students take, the lower their odds of ultimately earning a degree.

But at least one expert was unconvinced the gaps were caused by grade inflation alone.

“There could well be grade inflation, but I think we could have greater effort [from students] simultaneously,” said Robert Balfanz, a research professor at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, where he is the director of the Everyone Graduates Center.

Greater attention to college selectivity has heightened pressure on schools to offer, and students to work harder in, college-preparatory courses, Balfanz said. “Even beyond the Ivy League, state flagship schools [of higher education] are getting hyperselective, and as they get more and more selective, it just tells kids you’ve got to do better and better.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 2022 edition of Education Week as Pace of Grade Inflation Picked Up During the Pandemic, Study Says

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