Grade Inflation a Systemic Problem in U.S. High Schools, ACT Report Shows

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IOWA CITY, IOWA — A new report from ACT, the nonprofit organization that administers the ACT college readiness exam, finds evidence of grade inflation in high school seniors’ GPAs between 2010 and 2021. The average high school GPA increased 0.19 grade points, from 3.17 in 2010 to 3.36 in 2021, with the greatest grade inflation occurring between 2018 and 2021.

“Grade inflation is real, it is widespread, and it weakens the value of student transcripts as a single measure of what students know and are able do,” said ACT CEO Janet Godwin. “The study shows that grade inflation is a persistent, systemic problem, common across classrooms, districts, and states.”

The phenomenon of “grade inflation” — the assignment of grades that do not align with content mastery as measured by the ACT — calls into question whether, and to what degree, grades alone should be used to measure academic achievement or predict future grades. According to the report, grades can be a misleading indicator of how well students are currently performing academically and how prepared they are for future endeavors, including college. As grade inflation increases over time, high school GPAs become less useful as a single indicator of academic achievement.

Grade inflation became especially apparent in 2020 and 2021, and in some cases the rate of grade inflation increased substantially during those years, though attributing these changes directly to the COVID-19 pandemic is difficult. Shifts in high school course grading policy during the COVID-19 pandemic may account for the most recent growth in grade inflation. In response to the coronavirus outbreak, some school districts moved away from the traditional A-F letter grading system at the beginning of the pandemic to a more lenient policy dictated by districts, schools, or classroom teachers. As a result of the dramatic changes to the way grades were assigned, it is fair to ask whether GPAs assigned during the pandemic are comparable to GPAs assigned prior to it.

However, grade inflation began long before the COVID-19 pandemic. ACT research shows that high school GPAs have steadily increased over the past decade even as standardized measures have remained stagnant or have fallen. Grade inflation may be escalated by a growing interest in test-optional or test-blind admissions policies, whereby colleges no longer require standardized assessments of students’ knowledge and skills to be considered in college admissions decisions.

“Grade inflation makes college admissions more challenging and confusing for students, who need accurate, meaningful grades to tell the whole story of their academic success,” Godwin said. “Grade inflation also limits students’ ability to meaningfully gauge their academic readiness for college work and select a college where they are likely to thrive.”

ACT researchers reviewed and analyzed data from the 2010 to 2021 ACT-tested high school graduating classes for the study. The data included students’ most recent score for those who took the ACT test more than once. Students also provided information related to their courses and their grades, as well as demographic information and school characteristics.

Based on these findings, a holistic admissions evaluation that ensures appraisal of the whole student, including both high school GPA and an objective metric, should be used when making decisions about college admissions as well as scholarship applications.

Key findings:

This analysis suggested grade inflation was more of an issue for students with moderate and lower ACT Composite scores than for students with higher ACT Composite scores.

Students with low and moderate family incomes had higher rates of grade inflation compared to students with high family incomes.

Black students experienced a greater degree of grade inflation than white students.

Schools with a higher proportion of students who receive Free or Reduced-Price Lunch services had higher grade inflation than schools with lower proportions of students receiving these services.

At a school level, schools with fewer students of color experienced grade inflation at a higher rate across time than schools with more students of color.