- A new report from ACT finds evidence of grade inflation in high school seniors’ grade point averages between 2010 and 2021, based on analyses of high school GPAs and ACT composite scores of more than 4.3 million students from 4,783 schools.
- On average, high school GPAs increased 0.19 grade points, from 3.17 in 2010 to 3.36 in 2021. The three-year period between 2018 and 2021 saw more grade inflation than in the preceding eight years, growing by 0.1 grade points, according to the report.
- Though GPAs increased, average ACT composite scores continued to decline, in 2021 reaching the lowest average score of the past decade, the report found.
Based on its findings, ACT recommends holistic approaches in college admissions that include both high school GPA and a standardized evaluation — such as the standardized tests provided by ACT and its rival, the College Board's SAT.
“What we now know is that grade inflation is real. It is systemic, and it weakens the value of student transcripts as a measure of what students know and are able to do,” ACT CEO Janet Godwin told a news briefing Friday.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress released in March, high school graduates earned an average 3.11 GPA in 2019, up from 3.00 in 2009 and 2.68 in 1990. While average GPAs, credits attained and the number of completed STEM courses have risen within a decade, the national average score on the 12th-grade math portion of NAEP has declined.
Previous studies suggest high school graduation rates may also be inflated.
In 2015, NPR conducted a months-long investigation into climbing high school graduation rates, finding various districts and states mislabeled students or offered easier paths to earn a diploma. Some schools, however, are giving students long-term support to legitimately raise graduation rates, NPR reports.
A new study by the Brookings Institution also looked at data from 25 states to understand COVID-19’s impact on high school graduation and college entry rates. It found high school graduation rates remained steady throughout the pandemic, but there was a 16% decline among students immediately starting at two-year colleges and a 6% dip in students going to four-year colleges.
During the pandemic, some teachers have adjusted their grading approaches by allowing students to revise work or lengthen deadlines. Others took on a “do no harm” mindset, so students aren't penalized for low grades given circumstances outside their control, like a lack of internet access or the need to care for sick family members.
The new ACT study was limited to public schools matched to the National Center for Education Statistics’ Common Core of Data, an annual database of all public elementary and secondary schools and districts.
The ACT’s recommendation to continue relying on an objective metric for college admissions also comes as more colleges are moving to test-optional or test-blind admissions.
When the University of California System decided in November to no longer use standardized test scores for undergraduate admissions, ACT disagreed the move would create greater equity and access for high school students.
ACT told K-12 Dive then that without long-standing and objective testing, there would be an opportunity for more subjectivity and uncertainty in the admissions process.
UC's decision, ACT said, "is likely to worsen entrenched inequities and dim the prospects for students from underrepresented populations, in California and beyond, to attend schools in the UC System."
Yet research has found test-optional policies lead to modest gains in student body diversity. The UC System admitted its most diverse undergraduate class ever in fall 2021, which UC President Michael Drake drew attention to in November.