On ACT and SAT score release days, there’s a phone call that never fails. A distraught student or student’s parent is on the other line, distraught and confused. Why did they, with a 4.5 GPA, receive an 18 on the ACT? Teachers and administrators may be quick to jump on the test anxiety bandwagon. They did so well on classroom tests! It’s apparent in their high GPA. In situations like this, however, the most likely culprit is grade inflation.
What is Grade Inflation?
I come from a public school background and even then, in a 90’s high school classroom, there was a lot of pressure to pass all students regardless of how they might be performing in class. Giving passing D grades started the GPA inflation back then, so imagine how the system is affected today! Teachers are faced with the idea that B’s and C’s can potentially ruin a student’s chances at a top college. You can draw your own conclusion from this concept. The average high school GPA is on a steady incline. In 2016, the average was a 3.38. In the most recent SAT course I taught, all 15 students had a 3.25 or higher. Further still, over half had at least a 4.0!
Where Does it Come From?
Some grade inflation occurs from weighted classes, which colleges may or may not weight themselves. It can also occur from elective courses like art, phys ed, and music. Colleges usually remove these courses when determining a GPA for core classes. However, much of grade inflation occurs when students receive higher grades than they truly earn. That’s to say that on a traditional GPA scale, they wouldn’t be doing as well. A school does this to make their student body appear more competitive to prospective colleges.
For today’s parents, most are unaware of this harmful trend. When they were in high school, grade inflation was not as rampant. They hear a 4.2 GPA and assume their child is in the top 5% of the class! The ACT and ACT should be an easy task. After all, the valedictorian with a 4.0 from the same school pulled in a 1500 SAT and 34 ACT. But, when a sub-par standardized test score comes in, the gig is up. Admissions officers, on the other hand, know the score. They keep tabs on high schools and are aware of which ones blow up grades and which ones do not.
How to Tell if Your GPA is Inflated
So how can you tell if your GPA has been subject to grade inflation? There’s no sure-fire way to know, but, a good place to start is by looking at your peers and predecessors. Find out where they got accepted into college. If your classmates all have 4.0’s or higher and are only getting into less-selective, regional schools, there’s a good chance grade inflation is present at your school. If all those 4.0’s are getting acceptance letters from highly selective schools, grade inflation is probably not an issue.
Another great resource is your guidance counselor. Ask them for your class rank. If they say the school does not compute class rank, this should be your first warning flag. Admissions officers often use class rank to determine whether grade inflation is occurring. As a result, high schools who knowingly have too many 4.0 students may choose not to compute class rank.
If they do give you a rank, turn it into a percentage. For example, let’s say your rank is 50th out of 200 students. You are in the top 25% of your class. You can figure this out by taking your class rank and divide by the total number of students: 50/200 = 0.25. This means that your GPA puts you in the 75th percentile. This is because it’s higher than 75% of the student GPAs in your class, but lower than 25%. Does your class rank seem to correlate with your GPA? If you are in the 50th percentile but your GPA is 3.5 or higher, there is probably some grade inflation. In an ideal world, only the top 10% of students received A’s.
What Should My Scores Be?
If you have an inflated grade, you may realize that you have unrealistic expectations for your ACT/SAT scores. To determine a more reasonable target score, return to your class rank and percentile. Now, compare it to SAT percentiles and ACT percentiles. If you’re in the top 25% at your high school, a corresponding SAT score is 1720 (75th percentile) and a 24 (74th percentile) on the ACT. While this isn’t a fool-proof way to determine your ACT/SAT potential, it’s likely more reliable than an inflated GPA.