The ACT has seen the writing on the wall—and it doesn’t look good.

At a time when more colleges and universities are taking tentative steps away from standardized tests, ACT is not only recognizing the threat, but urging caution. Its reasoning? Grade inflation is growing, and grade point averages alone are not enough for colleges to make informed decisions about applicants without an objective measure of competence—like, say, a standardized test.

Last year, the number of ACT test takers declined 22 percent, even as the number of test optional schools grew to include a slew of public state school systems. In March, the largest four-year public college system in the U.S., California State University, also stopped requiring students to submit them.

Thus this latest shot across the bow, which comes courtesy of a new report from ACT, the nonprofit behind the college entrance exam. In it, ACT researchers found evidence of grade inflation over the past decade—namely, that the average high school GPA increased 0.19 grade points, from 3.17 in 2010 to 3.36 in 2021. The implication is that students are not learning as much as their transcripts indicate, hampering their ability to succeed in challenging environments after high school.

“We recommend a holistic admissions evaluation approach that examines the whole student to the use of multiple measures, including both grade point average and a non subjective metric like the ACT,” says Janet Godwin, the organization’s CEO. “It’s also important that higher education, as it increasingly embraces a test optional environment, understands what is being foregone when a test score is omitted from the admissions process.”

The report examined data from more than 4 million high school students from 2010 to 2021 who took the ACT. It found that while ACT scores have remained flat during this period, cumulative GPAs have risen since 2018, jumping significantly since 2020. All demographic groups saw grade inflation, but when broken down further, ACT’s researchers found that female, Black and low income students saw the biggest GPA gains.

Of course, the pandemic is one huge variable that could have influenced the final results—which even ACT acknowledged. “We have to think about the change in grading policies that took place in conjunction with COVID-19,” says Edgar I. Sanchez, an ACT researcher who co-authored the report. “Given the variety of ways in which high school GPAs were assigned or used during the pandemic, a traditional understanding of high school GPA may not fit grades assigned during this time.”

So what does that actually mean for students and colleges?

Grade Inflation Isn’t Always Bad

Even 20 years ago, author and progressive education champion Alfie Kohn—who’s none too keen on standardized testing—was arguing in the Chronicle of Higher Education that, “Complaints about grade inflation have been around for a very long time,” adding they were “not unlike those quotations about the disgraceful values of the younger generation that turn out to be hundreds of years old.” Later in the same piece, Kohn threw cold water on the idea that stagnant standardized test scores can show evidence of grade inflation, since testing—he used the example of the SAT—has “never been much good even at predicting grades during the freshman year in college, to say nothing of more important academic outcomes.”

Whether grade inflation, when it does occur, is even a bad thing is also subjective. Of course, it’s not good pedagogy to give students higher grades than the ones they earned—except when it is.

Last year, Zachary Bleemer, a researcher and Harvard postdoctoral fellow, noted in the Washington Post that recent research has found awarding higher grades to female students helped push them toward STEM majors, where they are woefully underrepresented, and cited additional research indicating that it can motivate all students, including those from low income backgrounds, to stay in college and graduate. In other words, despite those higher grades, students may not be learning anything more than usual, but at least they’re sticking with school longer. (Interestingly, these are some of the same groups that saw high grade inflation in ACT’s report.)

Also, rising grades don’t have to be a good thing in order to not be a bad thing—they can simply be a reflection of changing practices and mores in education, contends Timothy Quinn, chief academic officer of Miss Porter’s School, an all girls boarding school in Connecticut, and the author of the book “On Grades and Grading.”

“The reality is that the way we teach has changed a lot in the last decade, for sure, as well as the way that we assess—and those things have allowed more students to experience success,” Quinn says. “There’s this sort of paradox to it. Everyone wants their students to do really well, and schools will say they want to help all students. But then people will say, ‘Oh, but some of them should be getting Ds.’”

Specifically, Quinn’s school uses a concept known as mastery-based learning, where students aren’t beholden to one-size-fits all midterms and finals, but are allowed to prove what they’ve learned in a variety of ways. Often, they end up creating portfolios of work that can be sent to colleges along with their grades and test scores. As colleges move away from somewhat objective measures like standardized tests, they need something to fill the gap, which portfolios and mastery-based transcripts—ones that spell out students’ strengths and weaknesses—might be able to achieve.

“My problem with traditional grades in general is they don’t tell anyone much,” Quinn says. “It doesn’t tell the student much. They know that an A is better, but that doesn’t give them feedback that is useful and growth oriented.”

Going Test Free

Making tests optional may be trendy, but it’s just one approach. Take Pitzer College, a private liberal arts school east of Los Angeles, which doesn’t accept SATs or ACTs at all. One of the first schools to go test optional two decades ago, Pitzer is now piloting an entirely test-free admission policy, in partial recognition of the fact that scores were unlikely to be high during the pandemic anyway.

Pitzer is a selective school, accepting only about 17 percent of applicants, but it has sculpted its admissions process—and perhaps its reputation—in a way that neither test scores nor grade inflation are of any particular concern.

“Generally, I would say that the vast majority of students that apply to us are probably admissible,” says Yvonne Berumen, the school’s dean for admissions and financial aid. “We base that off not just the GPA, but also on the rigor that the student is taking”—meaning whether they’re enrolled in AP or International Baccalaureate courses.

Uniquely, Berumen’s school looks at all four years of a student’s high school transcript, and an essay question hones in on how a particular applicant meets its “core values” in an attempt to separate students excited by Pitzer itself from those looking for a generic liberal arts education. (In Pitzer’s case those values include social responsibility, intercultural understanding, interdisciplinary learning, student engagement and environmental sustainability.)

Tests like the ACT may still have value, Berumen adds, particularly for schools looking for specialized STEM students. But for those that already have holistic admissions processes, they might not say much about a student, especially given a rigorous course load and unblemished GPA.

“Back when we were a test optional school, when we did look at testing, it really didn’t impact [student] performance all that much,” Berumen says. “Maybe the first year GPA was slightly better for those that scored higher on the test, but everything sort of evened out after the four years.”

Pitzer’s pilot is slated to run until about 2025, when it will review its test-free policy. But if all goes according to plan, there’s a real chance that the college will never accept a standardized test score again.

It’s hard to imagine what research ACT will be presenting by then.

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