The ACT released a report detailing pervasive grade inflation, citing a 0.19 increase in GPA from 2010 to 2019, while at the same time the ACT scores stayed the same, and even decreased during the pandemic. In the mind of the report, and probably of you too, this is a self evident issue. The grade inflation that takes place in the humanities at the Ivy League has been a frequent source of mockery and proof that the elite aren’t actually that much better than us, just able to pay full price to get into Harvard.

But we should pull apart some pieces of the report. First, if you have been following college admissions, you know that the pandemic caused many colleges to make the SAT and ACT test optional for application. The history of college aptitude testing is kinda fascinating, and if you’re interested there is a published and well supported breakdown here. While the SAT was invented in the 20s, it wasn’t until the early 60’s that it achieved wide adoption, culminating in 1968 when the University of California system began requiring it for all freshmen. It is interesting to look at the reason why the SAT became a prominent force, because in almost every detailed account of the decision by the UC Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) lists one of the main reasons to use the SAT as a method for reducing the applicant pool. 

At the time, many people believed that it was a sufficiently fair predictor of the applicant’s viability in college and I would not argue that there is anything other than a positive relationship between SAT/ACT scores and college GPA. The problem arises when over time, something that is understood to be a flawed but acceptable proxy for aptitude or intelligence, becomes the measure of intelligence itself.

A similar thing has happened in the job market with the value of a college degree. As the applicant pool has grown, as access to job advertisements has increased, but as no easy way of discovering optimal applicants have emerged, a very convenient way to “shrink the pool” is to put a requirement for a college degree.

Of course this leads to a feedback loop for the SAT/ACT as well. When a college degree becomes a default expectation for jobs, college applications increase. As the pool of applicants grows larger, the tests become an even more important piece of whittling down the application pool to a manageable amount. And as these tests become even more important, studying for the test itself becomes a more necessary part of the college application process, which leads to more students taking the test at a higher level, which allows colleges to accept only a higher performing cadre of students, and those colleges go on to brag how the average accepted SAT/ACT score is so high, so the score becomes not only a status symbol for students but also for the colleges accepting them, which makes the test even more central to the college experience. The test prep industry has become so big that naturally ACT will sell you study guides, though they are usually not the most popular guide.

The important thing to know is that colleges saw some of the failings in admitting based solely on the SAT scores. That may have flown in the 1980s, but by 2001 the President of the UC System was calling for an end to the test in admissions. His point was mostly about them as a flawed proxy for intelligence, but he was not able to convince BOARS to take that step, and it wasn’t until the issue of equity was brought to the surface that scales around standardized tests began to fall from their eyes.

One of the problems with almost any social measurement, is that the second it is used to “predict” success in a way that reinforces it, that measurement will be optimized for those who have the time and money to optimize for it. Something that might have once been a way to discover untapped talent, instead becomes a way to reinforce existing power dynamics. This is a slightly hamfisted way of explaining Campbell’s Law.

So now we have a scenario where an absolutely key metric is being accused of perpetuating existing racial imbalances and making it harder for minority students to enter colleges, and then the pandemic hits. Now the pandemic hit everyone, but some people were able to live in slightly different boats. Students who were more affluent, had a lot more access to one on one tutors, something that became even more important as the lackluster Zoom class demonstrated a lower level of learning.

The UC system, which was already considering its options around dropping SAT/ACT requirements, decided in May 2020 to make 2021 and 2022 “test optional” where students who had good scores could submit them if they wished and not submit them if they didn’t think it would help, and to make 2023 and 2024 “test blind” so that the SAT and ACT scores will not be considered in application. There was still an intention to use SOME standardized test in the future, until that door was closed as well. The University of California is not every college, but it is the biggest system in the biggest state, and it is far from the only college to go at least test optional, so this moment represents a kind of existential threat for the ACT and SAT.

In this article I have talked a lot about the SAT and ACT as a unit, as if their interests are always the same. So why isn’t the College Board (the organization that administers the SAT) publishing the same kind of articles decrying the use of grades in college admissions? The College Board might not love that so many colleges are choosing not to require the SAT, but with that  comes the further need to prioritize (and for students to differentiate themselves via) grades. And in addition to the SAT, the College Board also administers AP tests. And in case you didn’t know, many colleges, including the UC system, weigh the grades received in AP and honors classes higher than the grades received in normal classes, so they still have a foothold in admissions. The ACT does not have the same kind of diversification, and has always been a smaller test than the SAT, in fact, quite often the main reason to take the ACT was for students deep in college prep to have a second option for a score to use in case it was stronger than their SAT score.

Now none of this really disproves the thesis that “grade inflation is happening and that’s bad because we need a way to tell how good students are in spite of that”. The truth here is somewhat muddy. It does seem like grade inflation is happening and there are certainly people who will talk about how that hurts students, there are also some arguments which point to the equity question across grades generally, some of which were being made back in the early 2000’s, and while some people probably won’t care if “more women get STEM degrees”, it might be more like a long play to increase the total number of Americans who apply and become educated in difficult and demanding areas.

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