A new study has found evidence of inflation in high school GPAs between 2010 and 2021, suggesting that while American high school seniors are graduating with better grades, they also know less than the seniors of a decade ago.
The study was conducted by ACT, the nonprofit organization that administers the ACT college admissions tests. ACT’s researchers examined the data of 4.3 million high school seniors from more than 4,700 schools, who took the ACT from 2010 to 2021. They found that even though the test takers’ GPA increased during that period, their ACT scores continued to decline.
On average, high school GPAs increased by 0.19 points, from 3.17 in 2010 to 3.36 in 2021, according to the analysis. The grade inflation in the first half of the 2010s was rather moderate but saw a substantial increase between 2020 and 2021, during which many school districts, in their attempt to accommodate COVID-19 school closures, moved away from the traditional A-F letter grade system in favor of grading policies such a pass/fail grade or no grade lower than a C.
At the same time, the average ACT score dropped by almost an entire point from 21 in 2010 to 20.3 in 2021. The analysis suggests that high school GPAs inflated for every given ACT score—the highest possible of which is 36. For example, a test taker with a 3.0 GPA mostly likely scored a 19 in 2021, but only 15 in 2010.
The inflation trend remains apparent even after researchers weighed the GPAs by taking into account factors such as race and family income. Students of all backgrounds earned higher grades, regardless of whether they attended schools in high poverty or affluent areas, whether they come from high- or low-income families, or whether they are white, black, Hispanic, or Asian.
“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 to do,” said ACT CEO Janet Godwin. “The study shows that grade inflation is a persistent, systemic problem, common across classrooms, districts, and states.”
ACT’s findings echo those of a federal report of high school transcripts, which shows that despite the high school class of 2019 completing more challenging courses with higher GPAs, they did no better, and in some cases did worse, than graduates a decade ago on national exams.
The report was released this March by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a set of tests popularly known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” According to NCES, high school graduate GPAs grew from 3.0 in 2009 to 3.11 in 2019. but the average NAEP math score declined from 189 to 184 over the same period.