ACT study finds grade inflation is most pronounced in high school math as colleges de-emphasize test scores in admissions

Jill Varshay:

Amid the growing debate over how best to teach math, there is another ballooning problem: grades. They’re becoming increasingly untethered to how much students know. That not only makes it harder to gauge how well students are learning math and catching up from pandemic learning losses, but it’s also making math grades a less reliable indicator of who should be admitted to colleges or take advanced courses.

The latest warning sign comes from college admissions test maker ACT, which compared students’ ACT test scores with their self-reported high school grades between 2010 and 2022. Grade inflation struck all high school subjects, ACT found, but it was highest for math, followed by science, English, and social studies.

Grade inflation accelerated after 2016 and intensified during the pandemic, as schools relaxed standards. But as schools settled back into their usual rhythms in 2021-22, grades didn’t fall back to pre-pandemic norms and remained elevated. Grades continued to rise in math and science even as grade inflation stabilized in English and social studies. For a given score on the math section of the ACT, students said they had earned higher grades than students had reported in previous years.

Edgar Sanchez, an ACT researcher who conducted the analysis, said the inflation makes it hard to interpret high school grades, especially now that A grades are the norm. “Does 4.0 really mean complete content mastery or not?” Sanchez asked, referring to an A grade on the 0 to 4 grade-point scale.