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.
Grade inflation is a big trend across the country. “It’s not just happening in some classrooms or with some teachers, it’s happening across the system,” said Sanchez. “What is happening in the system that is pushing this trend?”
Grades represent more than just content mastery. Many teachers factor in attendance, participation and effort in calculating a final grade. It’s possible that even math teachers are weighing soft skills more heavily with the increasing popularity of social-emotional learning. Or, perhaps high schools have watered down the content in math courses and students are genuinely mastering easier material.
Sanchez speculates that test optional admissions have elevated the importance of high school grades. He encouraged journalists and other researchers to look into the increased pressures on high school teachers of math and science courses, which Sanchez described as ”pivotal” for getting into competitive STEM college programs.
Sanchez said he shared his grade inflation findings with college administrators, who told him that incoming STEM students are not as prepared as students in previous years. (The Hechinger Report has also found that college students are struggling with basic math.) But college professors didn’t report a similar academic deterioration with their humanities students. “That was an interesting confirmation of these findings,” Sanchez said.
ACT isn’t an unbiased research organization. The nonprofit sells tests and it has been advocating for colleges to re-establish exam requirements. However, neutral observers have also found strong evidence of high school grade inflation. The U.S. Department of Education documented rising grades on high school transcripts between 2009 and 2019, while 12th grade math scores fell on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The National Center for Education Statistics plans to update this transcript study in 2024.
The ACT analysis, published in August 2023, covered almost 6.9 million high school seniors who took the ACT between 2010-22. They attended over 3,800 different public schools. It was a follow up to a 2022 report, which also detected grade inflation through 2021. This 2023 update looked at grade inflation by subject and added 2022.
Sanchez calculated that average math grades, adjusted for student and school characteristics, increased 0.30 grade points from 3.02 in 2010 to 3.32 in 2022. This translates to a movement from “B” average to above a “B+” average in a decade. During this same time period, science grades increased by 0.24 points, while English and social studies rose by 0.22 points and 0.18 points, respectively. (The analysis excluded bonus points that some high schools award for Advanced Placement and other courses. A 4.0 was the maximum grade.)
Grades are rising against a backdrop of declining achievement. English, math, reading and scientific reasoning ACT scores fell slightly between 2010-22. The sharpest declines were in math, in which the average ACT score dropped from 21.4 to 20.2. Three quarters of this math deterioration has taken place since 2020.
Grade inflation may indeed be an unintended consequence of a well-intended policy to de-emphasize testing. More than 1,800 colleges have adopted test-optional or test-blind admissions. That’s increased the importance of grades. The losers here are students who still need to understand math – no matter what their grade.
Jill Barshay is a senior reporter at The Hechinger Report, where she writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. This column was initially published by The Hechinger Report.