GPAs trend upward though SAT scores fall

Sahil Modi, Executive News Editor

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Compiled by Sahil Modi, Graphic by Ryan Matus

It is no secret that some students want to receive the highest grades possible to have a fighting chance at getting into their dream college.

A new study conducted by Michael Hurwitz, senior director of the College Board, and Jason Lee, doctoral student at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education, shows that students may already be receiving help in raising their grades in the form grade inflation.

In an e-mail, Hurwitz defined grade inflation as “the upward drift in grades in the absence of improved academic performance.” The researchers found that average national SAT scores declined by 2.3 percent during the same 18-year period that GPAs increased. Since average SAT scores have declined, the researchers had no reason to believe that there was an improvement in academic performance. Therefore, they accredited the rise in GPA to grade inflation. However, according to data released by the ACT, the average ACT scores in 1998 and 2016 were 21.0 and 20.8, respectively, a decline of less than 1 percent.

According to the study, which is set to be released to the public in January 2018, GPA rose nationally from 3.27 in 1998 to 3.38 in 2016, an increase of 3.4 percent. Grade inflation was determined based on the increase in average GPA and decline in the average SAT score.

In 2016, the percentage of students graduating with an A average was 47.0 percent compared to 38.9 percent in 1998.

Specifically, at Glenbrook North the average academic GPA rose from 3.10 in 1998 to 3.44 in 2016, an increase of 11.0 percent. The average ACT score at GBN rose during this period. The average GPA at New Trier rose from 3.09 to 3.39 during the same years, which is an increase of 9.7 percent.

According to Ed Solis, associate principal for curriculum and instruction at GBN, these increases could be attributed to multiple factors, not necessarily grade inflation.

Hurwitz said grade inflation disproportionately affects private schools, suburban schools and urban public schools. Hurwitz said this can raise issues for college admissions systems that heavily rely on GPAs, as it can be difficult to tell if a student’s GPA was earned or inflated. There still, however, has been an increase in the average GPAs of each type of school.

“There is considerable variation in grade inflation across schools, and it is not limited to one type of school,” said Hurwitz. “There is evidence that the increase in GPA has been steeper in private schools and in wealthier public schools.”

Hurwitz said he could not pinpoint the mechanism behind the  increases at different types of high schools.

Solis said he does not believe grade inflation has occurred over the years at GBN. Teachers have conversations within their departments to standardize grading. This helps to prevent grade inflation before it even arises.

“Teachers would get together, let’s say in the English Department, and everyone anonymously grades three junior research papers, and when they look at each of those research papers, [the grade] should be consistent using the same assessment rubric,” said Solis. “And when one person is off, we talk about the reasons why. We try to gain consistency.”

Social studies teacher Robert Berg, who is in his 21st year teaching at GBN, said he is inclined to say there has been a “grade creep” in his classes over the years, but he has not looked at the data.

“Grades have become such a huge issue that there’s this subconscious pressure to try to work with kids and make sure they’re achieving at the highest level that they can.

“There’s pressure on both ends,” said Berg. “From students and parents, the pressure is to raise the grade. With colleagues, you just have casual conversations with [them] and you hear how many A’s and B’s and C’s [they are] giving in [their] classes. You don’t want to be viewed as the person who is a revolving door for A’s.”

Solis said he believes grade inflation could occur for a variety of reasons.

“One [reason grade inflation could occur] would be the standards of the curriculum are not well defined and not established,” said Solis. “Therefore, teachers aren’t consistent with perhaps the delivery and assessment of the curriculum.”

Skip Shein, president of the Board of Education, said he believes colleges are aware that grade inflation occurs and thinks it would have an impact on admission, depending on how heavily the college looks at GPA and test scores.

Solis said he recognizes the immense pressure students at GBN feel to perform well academically, but knows that students do well and work hard to earn the grades they receive. As a result, he believes their grades match their academic behaviors.

If you have a collaborative group of teachers who are well equipped and knowledgeable about curriculum, and they’re given time to develop the assessments used in classes for consistency and keeping the academic high standards, then grade inflation does not occur,” Solis said.

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GPAs trend upward though SAT scores fall