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Escalating Grade Inflation Means Objective Measures Must be Considered in College Applications

Dr. Edgar Sanchez, lead research scientist, ACT.
By: Edgar Sanchez, lead research scientist, ACT

As seniors across the country anticipate the culmination of their high school journeys, they are preparing themselves for the next phase of their lives. For many, this involves applying to college — a process that can be particularly confusing with the expansion of test-optional and test-flexible policies in admissions. What we know is that as applicants navigate what inputs matter in the selection process, the weight of high school grades only continues to grow.

However, new ACT research confirms that grade inflation is a widespread and systemic problem, calling into question how high school grades should be interpreted when used to measure academic achievement or predict college grades. Grade inflation — the phenomenon in which grades assigned in high school increase year over year in a manner that does not correspond with increasing levels of content mastery — became especially apparent in 2020 and 2021, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, potentially misleading students when making important postsecondary decisions.

High school grades are meant to be an indicator of a student's academic performance as well as an indicator of preparation and potential success in college. Ideally, they would serve as a standardized comparison in contexts such as college and scholarship applications, helping students to understand how they are faring academically, and how prepared they are for future endeavors.

Unfortunately, high school grades are not a strictly objective measure of academic performance. In fact, they are often a mixture of performance on tests and assignments as well as subjective perspectives based on student characteristics such as ability, behavior, and attitude.

In addition to the subjective nature of high school grades, there are decades of research documenting the phenomenon of high school grade inflation. Well-documented evidence of grade inflation across time, and the incorporation of nonachievement components such as effort and participation in high school GPA, have resulted in an unstandardized way to compare students.

Grade Inflation Continues to Grow in the Past Decade, new research that I co-authored, examines the high school GPAs of more than 4.3 million students from more than 4,700 public high schools in the United States. Specifically, we looked at grades from 2010 to 2021. Our research found clear evidence of grade inflation for students who took the ACT test during this time.

We found that, even after taking into account student and school characteristics, the average high school GPA has increased from 3.17 in 2010 to 3.36 in 2021. Further, we found that while there was evidence of grade inflation throughout the entire period examined, the rate of grade inflation dramatically increased after 2016. Between 2016 and 2021 there has been a dramatic increase in high school grades relative to grades being assigned in 2010.

We saw evidence of the greatest levels of grade inflation during 2020 and 2021, which required consideration of the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it seems a logical inference, we could not conclude that the pandemic had a direct effect on the inflation of students’ high school grades during this period, and there are a number of factors that should be considered — for example, some school systems moved away from the traditional A-F letter grading system at the beginning of the pandemic to a more flexible grading policy. The variety of grading standards across the U.S. is one example of the systemic challenges contributing to grade inflation nationwide.

As opposed to high school grades, standardized metrics provide a way to fairly and quickly evaluate students’ mastery of core content and potential for success in college. High school GPA and a standardized metric provide different, and therefore complementary, information; research shows that considering these two things together provides the most reliable predictor of college student success.

For that reason, ACT recommends that a holistic admissions evaluation, including a number of inputs such as high school GPA and an objective metric like an ACT or SAT score, be used by schools when making decisions about college admissions as well as scholarship applications. This is consistent with best practice developed by the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education, which recommends the use of multiple measures to evaluate students.

If the meaning of a given GPA varies depending on which school a student attends, neither they nor the admissions representatives evaluating their college applications should rely on it as the lone measure of achievement. Students want to be able to tell the full story of their academic success, and that is more easily facilitated when multiple measures of academic achievement are considered.