Grades are inflated, SATs aren’t going anywhere

Hi all! This is The Educated Parent, where we chat about the week’s hot topics in education, and what it means for your kids and for you, as a concerned citizen. This morning, the topic is grade inflation and the return of the SATs. Yes, grade inflation and SATs are related. 

In this morning’s Proof Positive newsletter, Jill Barshay highlights a recent blog post from an education think tank and points to research that shows that high school students are taking more courses and getting better grades in the past ten years, but test scores have gone down in that same time period. Achievement fell, despite all those A’s. She said, “this is evidence that grade inflation and watered-down course titles, detected earlier in a 2005 study of math curriculum, is getting worse.”

Read more at my newsletter, The Educated Parent

5 thoughts on “Grades are inflated, SATs aren’t going anywhere

  1. Assessment and what it means is an interest I’ve followed for a while and without additional info, I can’t know whether there’s grade inflation (which I interpret as giving a higher score for the same work) or some other disconnect between the grades and tests, including different learning, or different goals in grading.

    For example, everyone’s always looking for ranked grading, meaning that everyone in a class can’t get an A, but, more and more schools are arguing for mastery grading, where everyone in a class could get an A, if they all met the standards for an A.

    I’m not arguing that the standardized testing isn’t relevant and certainly don’t believe it doesn’t measure learning (especially in math), but I think assessment is hard and depends on what you’re using it for.


  2. Now mind you, I do think the easy path for teachers and schools is to give “Gentleman’s A”s (used to be C’s, but, now.

    But, there are also other ideas about assessment. I know a couple of professors who are refusing to “grade”, Yael Niv, for example, who teaches at Princeton:

    I don’t agree with this philosophy for a variety of reasons, but it is not a lazy approach for people like Niv, who, not incidentally, studies learning.


  3. I think MIT didn’t make a good enough empirical case for returning to requiring standardized tests, potentially because they didn’t want to publicly share data. I’d like to know if they have data that students who didn’t submit scores have done poorly in their required calculus & physics classes. And, potentially, that they found themselves not accepting applicants from schools not known to have strong math programs without a confirming good score on the SAT.

    I also think that MIT is a special case because of the requirement that students take the math/physics classes (part of the core, and, I think, the same for everyone). Other schools with unavoidable required core classes have to wrestle with the same issue, that students can’t chose a curriculum that works for them and graduate. Harvey Mudd has a requirement that you must retake the courses every time they are offered if you don’t pass them (which, to me means that they face that issue). And, neither of those schools are set up to offer remediation if the students haven’t learned the material.

    Back in the day, 96% of students at the college I attended scored 800/800 on the Math Level 2 subject test . I remember deciding that if I didn’t get that score, I wouldn’t apply. The college had a boot camp that was offered to students who hadn’t had the math already, but they ultimately dropped the boot camp because it wasn’t helping (in the same way that folks complain about the remedial classes at community colleges that don’t advance you). There are times when the assessment is correlated enough with the work that you will do, that it should be used as a bar (as I was using the 800 on the math test — and, where the school might have used it as well).


  4. But, though we really think reading well and writing is required for many college classes (except maybe the ones that are all numbers or code), do we think the SAT verbal tests that well?

    I don’t know what the future of the SAT/ACT is. Harvard has officially gone test optional through the 2026 admission cycle (as have others). So they’ll have more data to compare outcomes with test scores (and, they have a more flexible curriculum, so they probably won’t pay the price of lowering their graduation rate, which MIT might have been worried about). Oh, and a ruling in the current Supreme court case may play a role in their decision to avoid numbers.


  5. I have one class where I tell students at the beginning of the class that they have an A and they will lose it only by not doing the assignments I give. The course has them developing a research project, and they *absolutely* need to be creative and to fail and start all over. Guaranteeing the A eliminates the anxiety and allows them room to think and experiment and push themselves out of the safe zone. But I can’t do that for every class.


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