Inflated GPAs: When test scores and grades collide

SAT Prep

On the day SAT scores are released,Inflated-1 I wait for the one phone call that never fails: that from a distraught parent who cannot understand why her daughter with a 4.5 GPA received a 1350 on the SAT. Teachers and administrators at her daughter’s school may be quick to jump on the test anxiety bandwagon, even though the girl clearly does well on her classroom tests given her high GPA. In situations like this, however, the most likely culprit is grade inflation.

I come from a public school background, where there was some pressure to pass all students (okay, a lot of pressure. In 1999, I warned administrators that a student in my classroom was performing two grade levels behind, but was told that I was forbidden to hold him back without parental request). If this pressure of giving passing ‘D’ grades started creating inflated GPAs back then, how is the system affected today when high school teachers are told that B’s and C’s can ruin a student’s chance at top colleges? You can draw your own conclusion: in a recent SAT course in which I taught 15 students, every one of them had a 3.25 or higher. Over half of them had a 4.0 or higher.  

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). But much of grade inflation occurs when students are assigned higher grades than they would have earned on the traditional GPA scale, so that a school’s students seem more competitive to prospective colleges.  

Most of today’s parents are unaware of this harmful trend. When they were in high school, grade inflation was not as rampant. If they hear that their son has a 4.2 GPA, they assume he’s in the top 5% of his class and that the SAT and ACT should be easy tasks. After all, the valedictorian with the 4.0 from their high school pulled in a 2250 SAT and 34 ACT. But when their high-GPA child comes home with sub-par standardized test scores, the gig is up, for the unsuspecting parents at least. Admissions officers, on the other hand, know the score. They keep tabs on high schools and they are well aware of which ones blow up grades and which ones do not.

So how can you tell if your GPA has been subject to grade inflation? There is no sure-fire way to know, but you can get a sense of whether it has occurred by looking at where students at your high school from your current class and from the past few years are being accepted to college. If your classmates all have 4.0s or higher but are only being accepted to less selective regional schools, there’s a good change grade inflation is present at your school. But if all those 4.0s are getting acceptance letters from highly selective schools, then grade inflation is probably not an issue. Also, ask your guidance counselor for your class rank. If he or she says 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, so high schools who knowingly have too many 4.0 students may choose not to compute class rank. If you are provided with a rank, turn it into a percentage. For example, if your rank is 50th out of 200 students, you are in the top 25% of your class (50/200 = 0.25 or class rank/total number of students = percentage). This means that your GPA puts you in the 75th percentile because it is higher than 75% of the student GPAs in your class (but lower than 25% of your class). Does your class rank seem to correlate with your GPA? If you are ranked in the 50th percentile but your GPA is 3.5 or higher, there is probably some grade inflation. In an ideal world (and in the world of the past), only the top 10% of students received A’s.

If you find that your grade is inflated, you may realize that you (and your parents) have unrealistic expectations for your ACT and SAT scores. To determine a more reasonable target score, return to your class rank and percentile and compare it to the 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 an ACT score is 24 (74th percentile). While this is not a guaranteed way to determine your potential on these standardized tests, it’s likely to be more reliable than an inflated GPA. Be sure to share this information with your parents, whose understanding of GPA is likely outdated in today’s inflated world.

Photo: "Balloons against the grey, great sky!" couresty of Renato Ganoza.