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­There are de­ cades of research on the validity and predictive power of standardized achievement tests, particularly in the college admissions context. As we observe elsewhere in this volume, scholars, test developers, and prac­ ti­ tion­ ers have compared their content to vari­ ous curricular standards, examined their ability to predict a wide range of postsecondary outcomes even when controlling for other ­ factors, and have psychometrically inspected ­these tests item-­by-­item in an effort to eliminate unfairness and bias. High school grades are at least as impor­ tant as standardized test scores in the admissions context—­ perhaps increasingly so as test-­ optional admissions increase in popularity—­yet ­there is no comparable lit­er­a­ture examining the validity, reliability, and fairness of high school grading. In this chapter, Hurwitz and Lee take an impor­ tant step in closing this gap in the lit­ er­ a­ ture. Through their systematic examination of high school grading, they discover some alarming trends with impor­ tant implications for policymakers and admissions professionals. Echoing conventional wisdom, they pres­ ent empirical evidence of pervasive high school grade inflation over at least the past 20 years. While SAT scores have declined, the high school GPAs of ­ those SAT test-­ taking cohorts have steadily increased. Why should we be concerned about this? As Hurwitz and Lee explain, as average grades inflate ­toward a natu­ral “ceiling” (traditionally 4.0, although some high schools 3 Grade Inflation and the Role of Standardized Testing Michael Hurwitz and Jason Lee Grade Inflation and the Role of Standardized Testing   65 have raised this) ­ there is, by mathematical necessity, less variability in grades and therefore less predictive power in the admissions context. But even more impor­ tant, the authors show conclusively that grade inflation is not occurring evenly in society. On average, they observe greater grade inflation among white, Asian, wealthy, and private school students than among less advantaged students and ­ those in the public schools. In other words, the use of high school grades in admissions is fraught with equity issues and is not a panacea for concerns with standardized tests. In Garrison Keillor’s fictionalized Minnesota town, Lake Wobegon, “all the­ women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the ­ children are above average.” Statisticians of all kinds, from the armchair variety to pioneers in the discipline, are expected to smile at this description. If all of the ­ children are above average, then ­ there must be at least some disconnect between the ­ actual average and the perceived average. Or maybe ­ there is broader confusion in Lake Wobegon about what “average” actually means? The characterization of Lake Wobegon as comically utopic (e.g., all the men are good looking) belies the actuality that this village is prob­ ably representative of the typical American town. Keillor ­ doesn’t elaborate on the specific qualities that make all of Lake Wobegon’s youth above average. But let’s assume that he is making reference to some mea­ sure of academic potential or per­ for­ mance. In the educational mea­ sure­ ment sphere, academic potential/per­ for­ mance tends to have a bell-­ shaped distribution. This means that approximately half of Lake Wobegon’s youth—­ all of whom are supposedly above average—­ are actually below average. One might expect that, at some point, ­ these youth ­ will confront the unfortunate real­ity that their placement into the “above average” category was a­mistake. Or ­will they? If the classroom assessment structure in the Lake Wobegon school system resembles that of a typical American school, lower-­achieving students may mistakenly view themselves as higher-­achieving. For several de­cades, grade inflation at high schools has taken place to a degree and extent likely unimagined when high school first became a widely shared experience for adolescents during the early part of the twentieth ­ century (Snyder 1993). Once reserved for the top performers in a typical high school classroom, A grades are now the norm rather than the exception. The reasons for this are many, as detailed below, but the­upshot is clear: It is now harder than ever to distinguish between the academic per­ for­ mance of dif­fer­ ent students within the same classroom or school. 66   Making the Case for Standardized Testing Indeed, this transformation of American high schools into mini Lake Wobegons has not gone unnoticed by higher education’s gatekeepers. One admissions dean from an elite private college publicly made this connection in a recent interview with the Washington Post, referencing...


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