Grade Inflation Is Greater in Wealthier Schools, Study Says

By Catherine Gewertz — August 18, 2017 2 min read
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Students in suburban public schools and private schools have benefited from grade inflation more than their less-affluent counterparts in urban schools, according to new research.

The College Board examined the grade point averages of students who took the SAT between 1998 and 2016. They compared those GPAs for students at private and suburban schools—settings that tend to have larger shares of affluent students—and at urban public schools, which typically enroll more low-income students.

The study, by Michael Hurwitz, a lead researcher at the College Board, and Jason Lee, a doctoral student at the University of Georgia, is slated for publication in January as a chapter in a book about college admissions decisions, but College Board researchers have released the basic findings.

Here are the changes the researchers found in the average GPAs of SAT-takers in different types of schools over that 18-year period:

  • Private independent (not religious) schools: 3.25 to 3.51 (8 percent)
  • Private religious schools: 3.29 to 3.5 (6.4 percent)
  • Suburban public schools: 3.25 to 3.36 (2.4 percent)
  • Urban public schools: 3.26 to 3.28 (0.6 percent)

Average grades have been rising across the country at least since the 1990s, a trend noted in federal research. In its new paper, the College Board finds that between 1998 and 2016, high school GPA overall rose by .11 of a GPA point. The proportion of SAT-takers with grades in the A range rose from 39 percent to 47 percent during that period, even as SAT scores declined slightly.

Richard Weissbourd, who directs the human development and psychology program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, told Education Dive that the grade inflation in private and suburban schools is probably driven by pressure from aggressive parents who are worried about their children’s chances of being admitted to selective colleges.

Private schools, in particular, “need to be able to tout how many of their students went to selective colleges” in order to be “attractive to parents,” Weissbourd told the Hechinger Report, “so they’re incentivized to give better grades.”

Parents of students in suburban schools also put pressure on principals and teachers, Weissbourd told Hechinger, and that could result in higher overall GPAs. “It becomes very high maintenance for schools to deal with aggressive parents. So that can also push grades up.”

These dynamics put low-income students at a disadvantage when they’re applying to college, experts told the two news organizations. That’s especially true as more institutions place a high priority on grades and less emphasis on test scores.

A recent survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling showed that admissions officers value students’ grades and the rigor of their coursework much more than college-admission test scores.

“This is just another systemic disadvantage that we put in front of low-income kids and kids of color,” Andrew Nichols, the director of higher-education research at The Education Trust, told Hechinger.

Michael Hurwitz, who led the research for the College Board, told Hechinger that the pattern of GPA changes is “aligned with wealth in a very troubling way.”

For more stories on grade inflation, see:

Grade Inflation: High Schools’ Skeleton in the Closet

There’s No Such Thing as Grade Inflation

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.