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Grades going up, SAT scores down: Experts say grade inflation is to blame

(AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson)

There are more are more “A” students in high school than ever before, but average SAT scores are falling. What explains these two conflicting trends?

Michael Hurwitz of the College Board and Jason Lee of the University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education set out to study how today’s students compare to the high schoolers of 19 years ago.

The duo found that 47 percent of American high school students have “A” GPAs and the average SAT score is 1,002. Back in 1998, only 38.9 percent of American high schoolers were “A” students – but they scored an average 1,026 SAT points.

Lee and Hurwitz blame grade inflation. In other words, the level of mastery that used to earn a B+ might now receive an A or A-. Studies show that grade inflation is more prevalent at private schools than public ones and Lee and Hurwitz say that grade inflation is most prevalent in schools with wealthy, white students.  

High schools have every incentive to inflate grades. Higher grades mean higher graduation rates, and higher graduation rates mean better rankings. When college admissions and scholarships are based in part on GPA, high schools know that high GPAs will get their students more acceptance letters.

Lee and Hurwitz say that schools with grade inflation would do well to use class rankings. This would allow college admissions officers to compare students within the same school, not at different schools with vastly different levels of difficulty. If you operate under the delusion that everyone is a great student, ranking students disrupts that narrative. Someone has to be at the bottom of the class.

Unfortunately, schools that are wealthy, white, and/or private are also least likely to use that marker of achievement. In schools where every student and family is essentially a customer, schools need to keep those customers happy. Few are willing to pay to be ranked at the bottom.

Grade inflation is only one contributing factor to this GPA rise/SAT fall paradigm. Additionally, the College Board has made the SAT more difficult. In 2016, the testing giant rolled out a new SAT with “longer and harder reading passages and more words in math problems,” according to the New York Times.

A tougher SAT makes the painful rite of passage even more grueling, but it also makes it easier for colleges to differentiate between applicants. A more difficult test means that the bell curve of scores will be more spread out, making it easier for colleges to differentiate between candidates.

Lower SAT scores point more towards a harder test than toward lesser abilities. However, grade inflation means a gradual lowering of the bar for achievement. Over time, this scheme might make schools look good, but it continues to be a disservice to students.

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