College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says

12th Graders Took Harder Courses and Got Higher GPAs, But Test Scores Fell. What Gives?

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 16, 2022 2 min read
Image of data.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The average high school graduate in 2019 earned more course credits, had higher average grades, and was more likely to complete at least a moderately rigorous course of study than any graduating class in nearly three decades, according to a new federal transcript study.

But these improvements did not lead to higher scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, said Peggy Carr, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which conducted the study.

The average graduate in 2019 earned 28.1 credits and had a 3.11 GPA, up from 27.2 credits and a 3.0 GPA for the average graduate a decade before, when NCES conducted the last transcript study. (Those GPAs in both years would be considered Bs.)

Carr said students earned their credits and grades in more-challenging classes, too. More than half of 2019 graduates had taken a slate of courses characterized by researchers as moderately rigorous, up from 47 percent in 2009. Moreover, students improved their grades in both college-prep courses like algebra or physics and in career-technical classes.

While students of all ethnic groups improved their performance overall, differences in course-taking and grades haven’t changed much in the last decade or more. More than 1 in 4 Asian students took the most-rigorous curriculum, compared to 13 percent of White students, 10 percent of Hispanic students, and 5 percent of Black students.

Asian and white students in 2019 earned GPAs of 3.39 and 3.23, respectively; both groups have maintained at least B averages since the class of 2000. Their Black and Hispanic peers respectively earned on average 2.83 and 2.95 GPAs (considered Cs) in 2019, up from 2.69 and 2.83 a decade before.

Course quality may be mixed

However, 12th grade NAEP performance fell precipitously in math over the last decade, even for students taking midlevel or rigorous courses of study. Only 2019 graduates who took math classes up to calculus performed on par on NAEP math with their 2009 peers. Scores of Black students who took calculus rose from 165 to 177 during that time, as did their numbers.

While the transcript study did not look at what could be causing the gap between students’ grades and performance, Carr noted that an earlier NCES study found gaps in course content. “We took a look at what was actually being taught in these courses labeled as Algebra II or Algebra I or Geometry,” Carr said, “and what we found is that the titles and what was being advertised by the schools as an advanced course in these areas really did not pan out when we actually looked at what was being taught.”

Course-taking trends are worth noting because prior research suggests that students’ high school course of study and grades can be better predictors than test scores of students’ high school graduation and later, college success. In one study released in January, David Marshall, an assistant professor of education research at Auburn University, found that earning a D or F in core classes like English was a warning sign of high school dropout or failure risk as early as the first semester of 8th grade.

While the results presented this week offer the most-recent national transcript data available, they predate the pandemic. Carr said future studies will look at whether the rise of online and dual-credit courses during the pandemic has changed which classes high school students choose.

A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2022 edition of Education Week as 12th Graders Took Harder Courses And Got Higher GPAs, But Test Scores Fell. What Gives?


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Classroom Technology Webinar
How to Leverage Virtual Learning: Preparing Students for the Future
Hear from an expert panel how best to leverage virtual learning in your district to achieve your goals.
Content provided by Class
English-Language Learners Webinar AI and English Learners: What Teachers Need to Know
Explore the role of AI in multilingual education and its potential limitations.
Education Webinar The K-12 Leader: Data and Insights Every Marketer Needs to Know
Which topics are capturing the attention of district and school leaders? Discover how to align your content with the topics your target audience cares about most. 

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness Spotlight Spotlight on Career Readiness & Technology
This Spotlight will help you learn about workforce readiness after-school programs, the benefits of virtual work-based learning, and more.
College & Workforce Readiness What's Next for AP? 4 Takeaways From a College Board Official
In a recent interview with Education Week, the head of the Advanced Placement program discussed a variety of priorities and principles.
3 min read
Trevor Packer, head of the College Board’s AP Program speaks at the AP Annual Conference in Seattle, Wash. on July 20, 2023.
Trevor Packer, the head of the College Board’s AP program, speaks at the organization's annual conference in Seattle in July.
Ileana Najarro/Education Week
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion What We Lose With the End of Affirmative Action
My own path to higher education demonstrates the importance of reaching out to students of all backgrounds, writes a Harvard medical student.
David Velasquez
5 min read
Illustration of hands and puzzle pieces.
DigitalVision Vectors / Getty
College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says Pandemic High School Grads Are Sticking With College. States Want to Make Sure They Finish
Students' college persistence rates are back to what they were before COVID hit.
7 min read
Harvard University freshman Daniela Andrade on campus October 12, 2021 in Cambridge, Mass.
Harvard University freshman Daniela Andrade on campus Oct. 12, 2021, in Cambridge, Mass.
Angela Rowlings for Education Week