Inflation in the Classroom

Decades ago, while still in grad school, I read a book that left a lasting impression. Written by Alan Nairn, then a young associate of Ralph Nader, The Reign of ETS contained what struck me as a stinging criticism of what was then known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test – a title that was retired by the College Board in 1990. In recent years, the college admissions test is simply (and officially) known by its former acronym, the SAT.

At the time I read the book, administration of the SAT, which was then developed by the Education Testing Service, was ubiquitous. Every high school student aspiring to gain admission to a four-year college or university took the test and then awaited, often with considerable anticipation, if not outright dread, receipt of his/her SAT scores. For, as they were well aware, those scores would, more than any other single measure, determine whether they would subsequently receive a thick envelope, or a painfully thin letter of rejection from the colleges and universities they hoped to attend. Ditto for aspiring graduate students who had taken the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), also developed and administered by the Educational Testing Service. If admission to higher education opened the path to professional preparation and prosperity, the SAT and GRE were effective gatekeepers. It was thus fitting for Mr. Nairn to have subtitled his book about ETS: “The corporation that makes up minds.”

Anyway, reading Mr. Nairn’s book helped to demystify the SAT. I knew the test was supposed to be a predictor of success in college, but had no idea what that meant? How, for example, did the SAT understand ‘success’? As the book explained, the SAT’s validity was established by correlating students’ test scores and their first-year college and university grade point averages, with first-year GPA employed as a proxy for overall success in college.

Mr. Nairn then set about poking holes in those assumptions. He challenged ETS’ decision to use first-year college GPA as the SAT’s referent of validity. The first year of college is a time of adjustment, he contended. Many students find themselves living away from home and out from under the daily oversight of their parents for the first time, producing anxiety, irresponsibility, or both. Using first-year grades to predict a student’s overall success in college was a bad idea, he argued. To buttress his point, Nairn adduced data showing that first-year college GPA and four-year college GPA were weakly correlated.

Because Mr. Nairn’s book left me with a negative disposition toward the SAT, I welcomed the eventual decision of one college after another to either make the taking of the test optional, or eliminate it, altogether. For a while I was convinced the SAT was destined for assignment to the junk heap of education history.

I was wrong. The SAT appears to be making a comeback. I was put on notice first by a January 7, 2024 New York Times article by David Leonhardt titled, “The Misguided War on the SAT,” and then by a February 5, 2024 Wall Street Journal editorial titled, “Dartmouth Sees the Value of the SAT.” Hmmm. When the newspapers of record for the left and right, respectively, appear to be marching in lockstep, chances are they’re on to something. (I realize, of course, that the NYT article was not an editorial. Still…)

Each of the articles had a common denominator. In Mr. Leonhardt’s words: “Test scores are more reliable than high school grades.” And as the WSJ Editoral Board reported Dartmouth’s administrators to have found: “Test scores are more useful than a high-school GPA.”

What does that say about my decades-long misgivings about the SAT? Not much. Because as far as I’m concerned, the only reason the SAT has become a better predictor of college performance than high school GPA is because a high school grade isn’t what it used to be. David Leonhardt acknowledges as much in his article, and provides readers with a link to a wonderful NYT guest essay from independent school teacher Tim Donahue, titled, “If Everyone Gets an A, No One Gets an A.”

The reality of grade inflation is made painfully clear in a biting blog post from U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences Director Mark Schneider, titled, “‘Education Runs on Lies’.” (The title is a quote from former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.) Citing data obtained from the most recent administration of the National Center for Education Statistics’ High School Transcript Study, Dr. Schneider notes the following:

  • High school graduates are earning more credits, especially in academic subjects;
  • Grade point averages are climbing; and,
  • Graduates are completing more rigorous curriculum levels.

Yet, at the same time:

  • Student assessment scores are not increasing;
  • Compared with 2009, the 2019 NAEP science scores have not changed and the 2019 NAEP mathematics scores actually declined for high school graduates;
  • Math scores declined for graduates who completed a midlevel or rigorous curriculum;
  • Science scores are unchanged across curriculum levels; and,
  • Students with a 4.0 GPA in advanced science have an average score barely within the NAEP Proficient range.

Dr. Schneider ends his article with a sober reflection: “Simply telling students who have not truly mastered STEM skills that they are ‘A students’ who have finished a rigorous math and science curriculum is not the way to produce…a large, diverse, and strong STEM workforce…a precondition for the U.S. economy to prosper.”

Grade inflation draws no distinctions between private and public schools, Democrats and Republicans, races, genders, or sexual orientations. It is a national problem that deprives our children of receiving honest feedback about what they know and can do. Worse yet, students are probably aware that those to whom they turn for guidance are lying to them. In the game that’s being played, truth falls victim to a conspiracy of convenience. In short, grade inflation is failing our kids.

Ron Reynolds

Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.


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