Is grade inflation masking learning losses?

In short, the answer is yes!

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a sidelines story of a mother who was concerned that her daughter “is dumber now than she was 2 years ago”.

That mother’s comment piqued my already high curiosity about learning loss during the covid school lockdowns.

On cue, the ACT standardized testing service released findings from a reasonably comprehensive study of grades and standardized test scores.

Let’s drill down….


A remarkable increase in “A” students

ACT found that in 2021, about 55% of high school students had a composite GPA (i.e. average across all “book” subjects) that was equivalent to an A grade (the blue line below; Bs are the purple line).

That’s up about 10 percentage points over the past couple of years.

Hooray, the kids are getting smarter.


Err, not so fast mes amies….


But standardized test scores have fallen

On the below chart, the blue line tracks the average GPA … it’s consistent with the letter grade mix change shown above.

But, these higher grades don’t seem to be translating to improved standardized test scores.

Standardized ACT test scores (the purple line)have been pretty constant over the past 10 years …. but, have marginally declined in the most recent years.


Note: The “real” ACT trend is probably worse than shown because of “sample bias”.

During the pandemic (and continuing to today) many colleges have waived the requirement that applicants submit standardized test scores.

It’s commonly concluded that many “average” students opted out of test-taking, understandably concluding that they had little to gain with a mediocre (or worse) test score.

So, what’s going on?


Education pundits offer many explanations

There’s a wide array of  oft-cited possible explanations for the “discontinuity” between grades and test scores.

Here are some of my favorites:

> Assigning grades was challenging (for teachers) when classes were delivered online … so, a common sentiment was to give students the benefit of the doubt and “round up” to keep them engaged

> Course content was less rigorous (i.e. “dumbed down) to fit online delivery … so, more students were able to master the pared back content that was delivered.

> Submitted school work might not strictly reflect individual effort since students may have been getting “help” from well-intended parents who were, out of necessity, getting more involved in their children’s education.

> Fewer students are taking advanced courses … and getting higher grades in the less challenging course offerings.


> Curriculum changes — away from reading, writing and arithmetic towards social topics — have made grading less quantifiably objective and more generously subjective.


And, of course, there’s the possibility that school’s are “rounding up” to inflated grades to assuage parents concerns that, in the mother’s words, “children are getting dumber”.

As more standardized test scores come rolling in, that will become clearer.

My bet: We’re not going to like the answer…

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