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Study Focused on High School Grade Inflation Exposes Inequities

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Grade inflation is a growing problem and one that is more prevalent in high schools attended by affluent students, according to new research by AU School of Public Affairs Associate Professor Seth Gershenson.

His recent study published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute analyzed data from 2005 to 2016 for more than 1 million students in North Carolina. Examining results from all students taking Algebra 1 in the state, he compared course grades with scores on the state’s end-of-course test to assess the extent of grade inflation.

While the GPA increased at all schools, it increased 0.27 points at schools with more affluent students, compared with 0.17 points in less affluent schools. The study found grade inflation accelerated after 2011, mostly in schools that have more affluent students.

Gershenson revealed that more than one-third of students who received Bs in Algebra 1 did not score “proficient” on the state’s end-of-course exam. The exam scores were also better at predicting math ACT scores than course grades.

The reason why grades are inflated more in affluent schools is not addressed in the study, but Gershenson suggests it may be that parents and students have more confidence and time to campaign for better grades with teachers.

Both grades and test scores are valuable measures of student performance and should be viewed as complements to one another — not substitutes. The study suggests that earning a good grade in a course is not a guarantee a student has learned what the state expects — and that has serious implications.

“Grades are a very subjective and important piece of information that students and their parents get, as well as other teachers and principals,” Gershenson says. “They use that information to make decisions that can have long-lasting consequences on kids’ education outcomes.”

Data on student achievement are used to decide how and where time and resources are allocated. Students who are awarded As, but aren’t mastering the material, get a misguided sense of confidence that can set them up for failure as they enter college, according to Gershenson.

“It can create a false sense of complacency that can hold back kids from realizing their potential. That’s what’s most troubling to me,” he says.

Grade inflation can perpetuate existing socioeconomic gaps in educational success. When wealthier kids have higher GPAs going into the college admissions process, it can hurt low-income students who are in the applicant pool. In light of the study’s

findings, Gershenson suggests college admissions officers develop a formal approach to account for variation across schools in grading practices and adjust perceptions of grades at more and less advantaged schools.

The report recommends states use end-of-course exams as an external audit on course grades and progress. Although 25 states began using exams as tools for student accountability, several are eliminating the exams or have reduced their importance. Results of Gershenson’s study were picked up by U.S. News and World Report, The Washington Post, and Inside Higher Ed.