January 25, 2012

Grade Inflation in High School: Up 0.4 since 1980

You may have heard about grade inflation.    Grade Inflation is the trend where grades in school trend higher over time.    Today I'll look at some data on that trend. 

Grades are Up 0.4 in 30 years.

This old article at the Dept. of Education from the 1980's looks at Sophomores :  High School and Beyond a national longitudinal study for the 1980's Two Years in High School : The Status of 1980 Sophomores in 1982  Table 14 on page 18 gives average G.P.A. figures.   For all students the average G.P.A. was 2.6 in 1980.    It was 2.5 for men and 2.7 for women.

Jump forward to 2009 and the overage average G.P.A. in high school was 3.0.    The U.S. Dept. of Educations AMERICA’S High School Graduates results of the 2009 naep high school transcript study
has G.P.A data and reports in figure 8 that average G.P.A is 3.0 for 2009.   They also have overall G.P.A. figures going back to 1990. 

Using these two studies as source data here is the G.P.A. trend over the past 30 years :

The trend is pretty clear.   Grades have been going up steadily over the past few decades.  In the past few years grade inflation has slowed down and there was not a big difference in average G.P.A from 2005 to 2009.   I am not sure why grades have gone up over time but I can give a couple reasons why they are not going up...

No, its Not that Kids are Just Smarter Nowadays
Its possible that higher grades in high school are simply a reflection of smarter kids.  If the curriculum didn't change and the average test scores went up due to smarter kids then this would rightly result in higher grade averages.  Unfortunately this isn't the case.   In Are High School Grades Inflated?  the ACT looked at grades from 1991 to 2003 and compared G.P.A. to ACT scores. The ACT scores act as a control for the individual students knowledge and aptitude.  If kids were just getting smarter then ACT scores would go up and someone who got a 25 on the ACT 20 years ago would get the same GPA then as now.    The ACT study found that G.P.A. went up for students when you hold ACT scores constant.   In other words a student that got a 14 on the ACT in 1991 would have averaged 2.40 G.P.A. but by 2003 the kids with 14 ACT scores were getting 2.65 G.P.A.  The kids remained the same smartness (as measured by the ACT) but grade averages went up across the board.    The article High School Grade Inflation from 1991 to 2003 also from the ACT goes into further depth on the topic.

No, School Is Not Easier
You might theorize that G.P.A's are up across the board because the course material in school has gotten easier.   This too is not the case.   Curriculum at high schools has gotten more difficult on average.   The ED report AMERICA’S High School Graduates results of the 2009 naep high school transcript study has data on curriculum as well.   Across the board students are taking more credits and higher level courses.    In Figure 6 we see that in 1990 students took 23.6 credits on average but by 2009 they were completing an average of 27.2 credits.   Students took tougher courses too.   For example Table 8 in the report shows that in 1990 only 57% of students took advanced math but by 2009 there were 84% completing such courses.    Likewise the percent of students taking advanced science went from 61% in 1990 to 86% in 2009.


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