Policymakers should be careful about championing student GPAs

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In response to widespread fears that too many students would fail to pass the state’s seven high school End Of Course (EOC) tests, Ohio lawmakers recently created additional graduation pathways for the class of 2018. The pathway generating the most discussion allows students to receive a diploma by completing two of nine alternative measures, one of which is earning at least a 2.5 grade point average (GPA) during their senior year.

State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria has defended the inclusion of GPAs as one of the options, saying that “a GPA increasingly both in research and in practice has been shown to be a far better indicator of a student’s readiness for college success and frankly for workforce success than any standardized test.”

DeMaria is partly right. Several analyses have found a link between students’ high school grade average and their college success. For instance, this study from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) found not only that high school GPAs are an “extremely good and consistent predictor of college performance,” but also that they “encapsulate all the predictive power of a full high school transcript in explaining college outcomes.” These other two studies found that a student’s GPA and her composite ACT score were more predictive than either option alone. (There is little research evidence linking GPAs and workforce success.)

Yet GPAs pose several puzzles. No one denies that a student’s work ethic and level of investment matter—and influence achievement. GPAs can give an indication of the non-cognitive skills that a student will need to be successful at the next level. But before anyone declares the superior predictive power of GPAs and the wisdom of using this to determine whether a student should receive a high school diploma, some important nuances in the research need to be addressed. Consider:

  1. The focus on college attenders. The majority of studies that gauge whether high school GPA predicts college success do so by looking at how students with various school GPAs perform once they get to college. Yet this approach ignores a huge part of the student population—the students who don’t enroll in college and thus don’t have postsecondary outcomes to compare to their high school GPA. Quite honestly, most Ohio students going to college after high school would comfortably satisfy the state’s EOC exam requirements anyway. Without an accurate way to measure whether GPAs predict success for non-college bound students, it’s difficult to say how useful GPA is as a graduation requirement.
  2. Not all standardized tests were considered. The majority of studies that examine whether GPAs predict college success use placement tests (like ACCUPLACER) or readiness tests (like the ACT or SAT) as their points of comparison. Some studies use state tests, but those come from other states. No study yet examines how well Ohio’s EOCs can predict success at the collegiate level. Without such a study, it’s impossible to say that GPAs are a better predictor of readiness than the standardized tests that Buckeye students must take. 
  3. The difficulty of predicting workforce readiness. Ohio graduates work in thousands of different jobs in dozens of fields. Because each field and role is unique and complex, it’s difficult to determine on a broad scale whether students are adequately prepared for the workforce. There doesn’t seem to be any research that suggests that Ohio students’ GPAs can predict their workforce success despite DeMaria’s statement that GPA is a better predictor. In fact, the only clear data Ohio seems to have on gauging career readiness come from the WorkKeys assessment—a standardized test that the Superintendent recently recommended be eliminated!

Along with these important nuances, one more issue should make policymakers wary of putting too much emphasis on GPAs: their susceptibility to gaming, even when they are a low-stakes measure. One way this occurs is through grade inflation—giving students higher grades than their performance honestly warrants. I taught plenty of students who came to my class with high GPAs, worked very hard, and turned in all their assignments—yet still could not read and write proficiently. If their readiness for college and career were based entirely on their GPAs, they would have been considered well-prepared. In reality, they were years behind.

Kids who are academically behind aren’t the only ones who see inflated grades. A recent article in The Atlantic found that students enrolled in private and suburban public high schools are awarded higher grades than their urban peers despite similar levels of talent and potential. In fact, between 1998 and 2016, the GPAs of students at private and suburban public high schools went up even as scores on the SAT went down.

When it comes to relying on GPAs alone as indicators of student readiness and downplaying the role of standardized tests, policymakers should tread cautiously. Research certainly indicates that high school grades are an important predictor of college success, but many of these studies overlook the students who will enter the military or the workforce and also need to have a strong academic foundation. Furthermore, without research that specifically links GPAs to workforce readiness and performance, we can’t accurately argue that GPAs predict better than tests like WorkKeys, i.e. tests specifically designed to measure career preparedness.

In an era of rampant grade inflation, it’s irresponsible for state leaders to push aside objective measures that can gauge a student’s academic preparedness and that are not entirely within the control of that student’s teachers. Standardized tests don’t tell us everything we need to know about student potential, achievement, or ability, but they do shine an objective beam on what students know and are able to do. As the old saying goes, it’s important to trust but verify—and good assessments are a key part of verifying that students’ grades align with what they’ve actually learned and are able to do. 

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.