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Why Grade Inflation Will Bring Back Test Scores In College Admissions

The average GPA for high school students in the United States is at an all-time high. However, research indicates that this average might not be on the rise for the right reasons. Students don’t seem to be learning more as their grades increase. Rather, as shifts in grading, curriculum, and learning scales occur, students’ grades are artificially increasing, meaning that transcripts no longer reflect true academic ability. This phenomenon is known as grade inflation.

As we explore this increasingly important topic, we will answer questions like:

  • What is grade inflation?
  • What are the driving forces behind grade inflation? 
  • Is grade inflation a problem? Does it negatively impact students?
  • How will grade inflation change the state of college admissions?

Read on to find out the answers to these questions and how current high school students can take steps to prepare for the college admissions process and create a competitive university application by performing well on standardized tests.

What Is Grade Inflation?

At its core, grade inflation involves a disconnect between the high school grading scale and a student’s actual acquired knowledge. In recent years, grade inflation has manifested to a higher and higher degree in United States high schools, with students often earning high grades for a less rigorous curriculum. In fact, 47% of high school students today graduate with an A average. This statistic represents a 10% increase over the past 20 years.

Possible Causes of Grade Inflation

Grade inflation may be attributed to a number of factors, but there are a few that stand out. Among these is an alteration of high school learning outcomes and teaching methods. High schools have begun to move away from traditional teaching methods like memorization to instead focus on student-centered learning that goes beyond the academic material itself to emphasize how and why students learn.

This shift in teaching methods is not negative. However, using the same grading scale for student-centered learning environments and traditional learning environments generates inconsistencies that may lead to grade inflation. Grading or curriculum inconsistencies may also arise as a result of pressures placed upon educators to maintain high GPAs and graduation rates.

The pandemic likely contributed to grade inflation as well. In an attempt to help students maintain their grades despite difficult circumstances outside their control, schools adjusted their graduation requirements, end-of-year assessments, and general grading scales. Although we may have seen improvements in performance for high school students, a gap between the average GPA and the average standardized test scores still persists.

Is Grade Inflation a Problem?

Though it may not seem like it, grade inflation can be extremely detrimental for students. Graduating with an A average is great, but that A average becomes less valuable if the curriculum is not rigorous. 

Grade inflation indicates that, rather than achieving higher grades due to an increase in hard work or academic ability, students are earning A averages because their curriculum is less difficult or grading practices are inconsistent. As a result, students may enter university or a career environment underprepared.

Data from The National Center for Education Statistics aligns with these concerns. A study from June 2017 found that 41.7% of students entering university in the academic year 2011-2012 enrolled in at least one remedial course. Though other factors are also at play, grade inflation in high school is likely a part of the reason why students are unprepared to handle a university curriculum.

College Admissions Testing Requirements

In recent years, there has been a growing trend for universities to make the submission of standardized test scores as part of the application process optional. 

Though test optional schools have existed since 1969 when Maine’s Bowdoin College made the submission of ACT and SAT scores optional, the increase in policy changes since 2020 has been largely a response to the pandemic. During the pandemic, exams were shut down for a period of time, making standardized tests inaccessible to a large number of students and thus an unfair admission standard for students hoping to attend college at that time. 

The Impact of Grade Inflation on Admissions Requirements

As of 2022, more than 80% of colleges indicated that they would not require SAT or ACT score submissions. However, we have already begun to see this trend reversing at schools like MIT, Purdue, Georgetown, and Georgia State University. One of the catalysts for this reversal is most likely grade inflation.

A study published by the ACT in May 2022 set out to assess the state of grade inflation for United States high school students. Experts compared the test results of more than 4.3 million students from 4,783 schools to average high school GPAs. They found that, although the average GPA increased to as high as 3.36 in 2021, average ACT composite scores were on a steady decline. Thus, they concluded that the rate of grade inflation has increased in recent years, likely due to some degree of influence from the pandemic.

Further data gathered by the National Center of Education Statistics corroborates these findings. Analyzing transcripts and test scores from 47,000 high school graduates hailing from both public and private schools, the findings indicated that, according to low average test scores in subjects like math and science, students were actually learning less despite taking more courses and earning higher GPAs. 

So, what does this mean for college admissions?

College admissions committees find it very hard to differentiate the true academic ability of one student versus another when everyone is graduating with an A average. Because of grade inflation, an A average no longer means much in terms of helping students get into college. That’s why colleges will continue to reinstate standardized testing requirements like the SAT and ACT. These tests are one of the only ways they have left to measure academic ability without the influence of grade inflation or technology like ChatGPT.

Test Help From PrepExpert

Preparing for standardized tests is an overwhelming process, especially for students who might have thought they would never have to take them. Even if your dream school hasn’t reinstated standardized testing requirements yet, they could do so in the near future, so it would be in every student’s best interest to prepare to take the ACT and SAT. Having high test scores will never hurt your chances of acceptance. In fact, good test scores will only make your applications more competitive!

PrepExpert offers a huge variety of SAT and ACT prep courses that help students perform well on these important tests and showcase their true academic abilities. Our instructors can answer last minute questions about the material, help you build or stick to a study schedule, and teach you important test-taking strategies that will give you a major advantage on test day.

Check out our full range of courses and sign up today to start improving your test scores!

Prep Expert

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