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EDUCATION | RESEARCH FILE

Is Problem Rising GPAs or the SAT?

September 03, 1997|ELAINE WOO, Times education writer

It's September, which means teachers are dusting off their grade books. And if trends bemoaned by the College Board hold true, high school teachers will be handing out more A's than they should by semester's end.

Grade inflation is rampant, says the College Board, the private New York-based group that sponsors the SAT exams for college admission. Based on information provided by the 1.1 million seniors who took the Scholastic Assessment Test last year, the board found evidence of climbing grade-point averages--but no similar upward surge of SAT scores, which you might expect if the students were really getting smarter.

Since 1987, the number of students reporting A's has grown from 28% to a record 37% while SAT scores have fallen an average of 13 points on the verbal exam and one point on math. The class of 1996 had an average GPA of 3.22 on a four-point scale, contrasted with 3.07 a decade ago.

"Educators who give high grades for average or below average performance promote a hollow, just 'good enough' attitude that is detrimental to students and society," said College Board President Donald M. Stewart. Colleges need SAT scores, he added, because "they help keep the grading process honest."

If that sounds like savvy self-promotion, well, no one said the College Board never toots its own horn. But the folks at FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass., group that strives to keep standardized testing honest, go further, contending that the board's rantings about grade inflation are "a conscious smoke screen" to divert attention from serious flaws in their own exams."

"Grade inflation is real," said FairTest spokesman Bob Schaeffer. As he sees it, though, inflation of SAT scores--because of coaching by commercial test preparation centers--is "probably a more serious problem. How does a college know how much a particular applicant's score was boosted because his parents could afford $600, $700 or even $1,500 for test preparation?"

Does the SAT provide a reliable check against too-optimistic grades? Bob Laird, admissions director at UC Berkeley, says he would have to agree it does. "There is no doubt that the number of high grades has gone up in the last 20 years," he said. But Laird prefers to view grade inflation as a "phenomenon" more than a problem. "I think the amount of material students have mastered has increased and students probably have a much higher level of accomplishment than they did 20 years ago."

FairTest, the testing watchdog group, points out that the SAT is only one of the hundreds of standardized tests that American students take every year. In a report out today, the group, formally known as the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, attempts to shine a light on the slew of assessments given by states to gauge public school quality.

States were rated using five criteria: Were their tests bias-free? Do they support important (i.e., not rote) learning? Were teachers involved in designing and scoring the tests and given training to understand how to use the results? Are sufficient measures in place to report the results to the public, including to parents who don't speak English? Do the tests undergo regular quality reviews, in part to ensure that they meet state curriculum standards?

Vermont got the top ranking. The majority of states got a big thumbs-down because they "rely on outmoded, off-the-shelf, multiple-choice tests that are poorly aligned with their own standards," said Monty Neill, the group's associate director and author of the study, "Testing Our Children: A Report Card on State Assessment Systems."

California, which has had no testing program since the controversial CLAS test was axed in 1994, was ranked in the "needs major improvement" category. The report recommended that the state move ahead with a new test in the works, which will be aligned with academic standards now being written.

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