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A comment on this question on undergraduate admissions notes that a good college might get 10x more applicants who all have the maximum possible grade point average, than the college can admit. (The rest of my question is based on the assumption that is is actually true. If it is not, my question might be based on an incorrect premise.) Coming from The Netherlands, this sounds strange to me. We have a standardised test at the end of secondary school, and few people score average grades higher than 8/10 (passing is 6/10), with people scoring 10.0/10 being practically nonexistent (I seem to recall reading about one such student in the newspaper many years ago). The overall average is 6.4/10 for the school category granting admittance to university. For universities I don't have hard numbers but I would be surprised if more than 1 in 30 students score 10.0/10 in undergraduate introductory calculus. Most students seem to score mostly around 6–7/10, which I believe would translate to E–D in the American system, but I'm not sure. Grades 6–10 are passing grades, grades 1–5 are failing grades. My question is for pre-university tests though, the ones that are used to test if people should be admitted to university.

Why is there so much grade inflation in the USA? Is there no standardised testing for whatever tests are used to establish the grades used for undergraduate admissions? This system would make it very hard for Dutch students to gain admission to American universities, because getting the maximum average grade is virtually unheard of.

See also: Do price and value of degrees correlate much?

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    The SAT/ACT are not quite this inflated in the US, though they are periodically rebased or renormalized to account for shifting testing and score levels over time. – Bill Barth Apr 24 '15 at 15:48
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    As the author of that comment, that is not at all what I was saying. I was saying that they would get 10x their current enrollment if they admitted everyone that was likely to succeed. – Roger Fan Apr 24 '15 at 15:52
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    I thought If you have 1,000 applicants who all have a 4.0 GPA and a 1550 on the SAT, but only 100 available spots, you need a way to determine who to select implied those were the highest possible scores, but I might have misunderstood. – gerrit Apr 24 '15 at 15:55
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    There are many reasons, among which (in my opinion): 1) a generation of overprotective parents who will step on teacher's toes if their special child fails, 2) compounding 1), the US ability to sue anyone for almost anything (including suing for poor grades), 3) a generation of teachers who went through the above and are more concerned about the proper color of a grading pencil than challenging classes, and 4) as in many places teachers are evaluated for their students' test performance, giving a high grade allows them to focus on what really matters (preparing for tests). – gnometorule Apr 24 '15 at 16:13
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    You seem to be basing your question on guessing what the grade profile looks like in the USA, guessing what the grade profile looks like in the Netherlands and asking why they're so different. That doesn't seem like a good basis for a question: it's as much about your perceptions as it is about actual grades. – David Richerby Apr 25 '15 at 13:49
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There are a couple standardized tests used for undergraduate admissions that are generally taken near the end of high school. The ACT and the SAT are the most common ones.1 However, they are only part of the admissions package, and a relatively small part at that (varies by school, but my guess is they get a weight of around 25% or less at most schools).

There are many reasons not to base admissions solely on a single standardized test.2 One of the biggest is simply that standardized test scores often test studying and resources as much as they test intelligence and preparation. There's already a huge industry built around SAT-specific test preparation, and it's very difficult to argue that this extremely-targeted studying is doing anything beneficial for most student's academic preparation.

Also, keep in mind that the US is a much larger country than European countries, and there is a high amount of geographical mobility among the upper-/middle-class. Undergraduate enrollment in the US is around 18 million; that's larger than the entire population of The Netherlands. Because there is a huge prestige factor in going to a top school, almost all of the top students from that huge population will apply to the same 5-10 top colleges in the US. Even if the distribution of scores is the same as a European country, the much larger applicant pool means that top schools are inevitably going to be swamped with near-perfect applications.

1: The number of perfect SAT scores is actually quite low (I am less familiar with the ACT). In 2014, there were only 583 perfect scores out of 1.6 million test-takers. Though if you consider only the two more-important sections, there were 1,922 perfect CR+M scores. Even considering scores that are basically perfect (say, 1550+), less than half of 1% of test-takers reach that level. Source. However, that 0.5% translates into Harvard getting probably 5,000 applicants with 1550+ scores, which is already over 3x their regular incoming class.
2: The wikipedia article talks briefly about some of them, but there's a huge literature debating the advantages and disadvantages.

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    Interesting. The fraction of perfect SAT scores sounds a lot more reasonable than the fraction of students scoring A for a typical test. – gerrit Apr 24 '15 at 16:35
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    "One of the biggest is simply that standardized test scores often test studying and resources as much as they test intelligence and preparation." I can think of a few ways to make this statement precise, but all of them are false. Test prep courses do very little for SAT scores, for example. What exactly do you mean here? – Potato Apr 24 '15 at 19:08
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    @BrianDHall: It’s a pity that the paper to which you linked didn’t also look at high school rank in class: that was the best single predictor at the small liberal arts college where my father taught. This was, of course, quite a few years ago, and I have no idea whether this is still the case. – Brian M. Scott Apr 24 '15 at 21:40
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    FYI: Point (1) misses an important fact: students can take these tests more than once. – RBarryYoung Apr 24 '15 at 21:55
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    @potato: That we agree upon. The difference is more that affluent kids are often given a better education before getting to these tests, and that the expectations kids come into the system with differ strongly by class and community and culture. Which tends to add up to a triple whammy against inner-city youth. – keshlam Apr 25 '15 at 2:20
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While this is not a proper answer to your question, it applies to the part regarding what happens when you want to compare grades between countries. Consider it an extended comment.

Non-standarization of grades is a huge source of unfairness, in particular in Europe where the common job market it atomized into many sub-systems (countries), each with their own long standing tradition of grading. I have first hand experience with the university grading systems in Spain, Italy and Ireland (so this does not apply to undergrad bachelors admissions, but perhaps masters and doctoral). I now work in a Finnish university but I am not familiar with how the grading is done.

In Spain the grading is 0-10, with 5 being a pass. Anyone scoring above 8 average would be rare. However a passing grade then translates non linearly to a 1-4 scale, where the number of 4s is actually limited per year and subject to the willingness of the teacher to give. What is more, every time you fail an exam this lowers your average, so if you fail once then get say a 6.5/10 on the next exam this will get you a 0.5/4 on the final grade.

In Italy the grading is 0-30 with 18 being a pass. However I observed in my one year in an Italian university that one can actually negotiate their grade with the teacher and if they're not happy simply repeat until they get a grade they're happy with. Any decent student will thus finish with averages above 26/30 and even higher averages in the 28s or 29s are not that uncommon.

In Ireland it matters whether you get "first class honors" or not, which I think in practice means getting above 7.5/10 average or so. First class honors will e.g. grant you access to a PhD program skipping the masters. Failing students is a bit regarded as "not nice" in Ireland, and as a matter of fact any good student putting some effort will finish with a first class degree.

The three systems above work in their respective countries because people understand how the grading is done and how that reflects on the student's abilities. Whether any of them is inflated is irrelevant within the country because the same bias applies to every student. The issue is when we try to compare students who come from different systems, in particular in the context of the unified European market. I myself had quite a bit of trouble with my admission to an Irish university for a PhD, since my grades were in the Spanish non-linear system. This meant that even if I was a strong student I was put on "probation" for a year so I could prove that I could get a PhD despite what my "poor" grades indicated.

I think a) standarization of grades or b) official homologation of grades taking into account the countries traditions and renormalization are in great need in Europe.

  • Note that this isn't so much of an issue when comparing international students to US students (which is what the OP seems to be suggesting). I think the limiting factor there tends to be international quotas on admissions and competition from the large amounts of highly qualified asian students. – Roger Fan Apr 25 '15 at 12:02
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I think you're comparing apples and oranges. Grade point average (GPA) is a reflection of a student's average academic performance across all their classes. It is not based on a single standardized test, and "maximum GPA" does not imply perfect test results.

Setting that aside, though, you're also running into a difference in grading philosophy. This article compares the grading systems in the US, UK, and Netherlands. Quoting from there:

When the 1 through to 10 scale was officially introduced [in the Nethherlands] back to the late 19th century, it was decided that a 10 should only be awarded in cases of absolute perfection. Furthermore, as at the time it was felt to be almost blasphemous for mere mortals to be judging what constituted absolute perfection, a 10 was hardly ever awarded. A 9 was considered to be only a slightly less impossible goal to reach.

In contrast, getting a top mark of "A" in a US class only requires you to answer 90% of the exam questions correctly, and often accounts for things like attendance, class participation, and more. This is eminently achievable.

Grades in the US are often normalized, with the top 10% of students being awarded an "A" grade(1). In contrast, a 10/10 in the Netherlands represents the top 0.1% of students.

Based on the conversion tables in that article, I'd say a "maximum GPA" in the US would be roughly equivalent to an "8" in the Netherlands.

So I wouldn't say that the grades are inflated in the US, per se, just that they're defined differently.

(1) There is some evidence of true grade inflation in the US in recent years, but I don't think that's relevant to the disparity between the US and the Netherlands systems.

  • I am not sure grade inflation has much to do with the top students as much as the improvement in grades seen in average and below average students. – StrongBad Apr 25 '15 at 9:38
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    @StrongBad - That may be, but either way I don't think it changes the fundamental difference in grading philosophy or the 10% / 0.1% criteria for achieving grades. – Lynn Apr 25 '15 at 12:17
  • I think you are correct. With my MSc degree (which I obtained in the Netherlands), I received a seperate paper converting the Dutch style grades to US style grades, and 8/10 was comparable to an A if I remember correctly (could have been A+). I think this paper was supplied by the Dutch organisation for education internationalization Nuffic. – Pieter Naaijkens Apr 27 '15 at 9:37
  • You have just defined away the participle inflated. That isn't an answer. – thb Apr 29 '17 at 22:42
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An obvious reason for the exceptional degree of grade inflation in US high schools is that the public school system is extremely decentralized. Different local school systems are each funded not so much according to the number of students they have (as I imagine would be the case in a civilized country like the Netherlands) but according to the property values in their local community. This means that in any given area, neighboring school districts are in competition with each other. When there is a perception that a community has "good schools", more families will move there. This perception will in turn help to elevate property values, and therefore to increase the revenue base available to fund the schools.

Here is an interesting illustration from Farifax County in the state of Virginia, as reported in Time magazine.

Residents of the high-powered Washington suburb have been battling the school district's tough grading practices; chief among their complaints is that a score of 93% gets recorded as a lowly B+. After forming an official protest group called Fairgrade last year and goading the school board into voting on whether to ease the standards, parents marshaled 10,000 signatures online and on Jan. 22 gathered nearly 500 supporters to help plead their case. After two hours of debate, the school board passed a resolution, a move critics consider a defeat in the war on grade inflation.

[...]

The vote is good news for local business leaders who have joined the Fairgrade effort, warning that families worried about their kids getting into good colleges may move out of the county if the school district doesn't change its grading system. Talk of a possible exodus killing off businesses and destroying property values sounds a tad melodramatic, but given the tanking market and ongoing credit crunch, it's no wonder people are trying to do everything they can to shore up the local economy.

So there you have it. The article points out that this is getting worse as the trend in university admissions is to emphasize grades more and standardized tests less. It says that "75 districts in 12 states have relaxed their grading standards since 2005." This wouldn't even be an option in most countries and if it were there would not be the same economic incentives to do it.

  • While your point about de-centralization is a good one, I don't think the Fairfax example quite fits. 90-93% is defined as an A- in the standard College Board system and many (if not most) high schools in the US. Parents protesting that their school district get on board with the standard hardly seems like an example of "grade inflation". – Lynn Apr 25 '15 at 15:59
  • Fair enough. I'm not sure if you are questioning that grade inflation as a general pattern actually exists in the first place, but if so, there is plenty of data on that part. – Brian Z Apr 25 '15 at 17:51
  • No, not questioning the trend, just that particular example struck me odd. – Lynn Apr 25 '15 at 17:52
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While not directly an answer to either the titular question, or even the statement that there are 10 applicants with perfect GPAs and SATs for every spot, I think the answer is that you do not need a perfect GPA and SAT to get into a top school. For example Harvard publishes self reported GRE and SAT scores of incoming students. While some have perfect, or near perfect, scores on both, there are tails, not very long, but tails none the less. There seems to be many more students with 4.0 GPAs than perfect scores on the SAT.

While GPA inflation likely exists, a 4.0 GPA is only a 93% average so is not a perfect score. This means you can in fact get a 4.0 GPA with B's (or even lower) in a handful of classes if you offset them by getting g A+'s in other classes. You can also get a 4.0 without ever getting a top grade of A+.

The SATs may also be inflated, but they are standardized. The mean score in each of the three categories is around 500/800 with a minimum scores of 200. Less than 1% get over a 780, and only about 5% get over a 700 in any one category. Presumably less than 5% have a composite score less than 2100/2400.

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    Here is one source confirming your statement that inflation "likely exists." – gnometorule Apr 24 '15 at 17:10
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    @gerrit: At the top, the US still has excellent pre-college schools. There are private prep schools, and public so-called magnet schools, say. Grade inflation doesn't mean that the top students are less good, or don't get the opportunity to be well-prepared for college. It just makes GPA much less meaningful, a bit like a participation medal. There are attempts to in-elite elite schools (see another comment above), but you have the same in France, say, with their Ecole system. – gnometorule Apr 24 '15 at 18:30
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    actually you know what public schools get a bad rap a lot, but there are a lot of non so called magnet schools, and non private prep schools that do an excellent job preparing their students for college. I went to one such school that routinely beat out all of the private schools and so called magnet schools in my state. It was ranked number one in my state. – efuller100 Apr 25 '15 at 1:13
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    @Michael - I think maybe what he meant was that in a given class you can get some B's on exams and still walk away with an "A" in that class, maintaining a 4.0 overall. There are also some school systems that award more than 4.0 points for honors classes, making it possible to compensate for a "B" in a non-honors class. – Lynn Apr 25 '15 at 4:06
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    It all depends on how the school is graded. At my school, A-'s, A's and A+'s all counted as 4.0 in your GPA, so to maintain a 4.0 you couldn't get any B+'s. Other schools I know calculated them differently. Many schools often have a "weighted GPA," which awards extra points for honors/AP/IB classes. But those systems tend to penalize taking electives. – Roger Fan Apr 25 '15 at 11:59
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I don't think you can conclude, at least based solely on the observation that universities are seeing more applicants with high GPAs than they can admit, that the problem is grade inflation. Another possibility is that the effect is due to students applying to so many colleges. According to this survey, the number of students applying to at least 7 colleges has tripled since 1990. There are a number of potential causes for this, but that discussion is probably out of scope for the discussion.

1

By "grade inflation," I think you are really asking why are the grading scales so different. I don't have much supporting evidence for this, but I suspect a large part of it is due to the American individualistic and consumer culture, with a penchant for heaping praise and awards on students (see also this question, and the first link in Lynn's answer) and being effusive in recommendation letters. The consumer culture part is related to economic incentives mentioned in Brian Z's answer.

Another factor to consider, which I don't think has been mentioned before, is that the student population is extremely heterogeneous. I suspect there was a historical trend of higher grade averages in US than Europe even when the US population was not as varied as it is now, but I think the diversity in population (e.g., many students who don't speak English as a first language, or have supportive homes) pushes schools and teachers to be more "forgiving" with grades to give the kids with disadvantages more encouragement and a better chance to catch up. (This is not to suggest US academics is even close to being equal opportunity, sadly.)

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