Tag Archives: high school GPA

GPA and the Ironies of Integration

Grade inflation, score stagnation reports USA Today.  47% of students are graduating with an A- or higher average (A- undefined, but presumably 3.7 or higher). Back in 1998, just 37% were graduating with similar marks. Meanwhile SAT scores have dropped. Inside Higher Education’s take was more skeptical of the SAT connection but covers a lot of the same bases.

Moreover, the SAT scores are stagnant, so these higher grades aren’t evidence of greater learning!  OK, yeah, the SAT isn’t the only college admissions test and it’s changed twice in 20 years. What’s happened to the other college admissions test, which has a larger test base and which has changed very little? Well, one of the researchers works for the College Board, see.


Yes, GPAs are going up. I suspect this is caused by several states banning affirmative action.

Pause. I’ll wait.

[Reader: wait, what What do high school grades have to do with affirmative action?  Affirmative action usually involves college admissions, not high school…oh, well, high school grades are used for college admissions. In fact, now that I think about it,  high school grades don’t really have any purpose save their use in  college applications. ]

Good, you’re caught up.

It appears that voters have given up banning affirmative action not because they approve of it, but because universities have made it clear they have no intention of abandoning their “pursuit of diversity” and the courts have said yeah, okay, we’ll let you And as this how-to guide for avoiding lawsuits makes clear, top of the “diversity strategies” that allow colleges to ignore the will of the voters is the “percent plan”, or taking in students based on their class ranking. Class ranking is set by GPA.

Texas, California, and Florida all created programs to guarantee admission to public colleges for top graduates from each high school in the state. At their most basic level, these programs generate geographic diversity. But since high schools are frequently segregated by class and racepercent plans also create socioeconomic and racial diversity by opening the door to graduates from under-resourced high schools. These are students who may never before have considered attending a major research university. (emphasis mine)

I don’t have any proof that AA is one reason why GPAs are increasing, and I got a bit distracted because frankly, I don’t care about GPA. No, that’s a lie. I care a lot about GPAs. I think they’re fricking evil, and I get a bit nauseous when someone bleats about how they reflect the virtue of hard work. Look, GPAs are worthless information. Grades aren’t even consistent from teacher to teacher, much less school to school, much less aggregated into one big nationwide chunk. Many teachers grade participation and homework on the same basis as tests–some are even required to boost or reduce demonstrated ability with effort or citizenship grades.  Tests are usually the teachers’ own creations. Some are terribly unfair, some are just terrible. And some are very good–so good, in fact, that the teachers reuse those tests year after year, and the students sell images of them to “tutoring services” and each other, thus rendering their goodness inert.

But I don’t really care why GPAs are rising. The italicized part of the paragraph–since high schools are frequently segregated by class and race–operated like a bright shiny object to distract me from an unpleasant subject.

Yes. Since most blacks and Hispanics go to majority black and Hispanic schools, the students with the highest GPAs will be black and Hispanic. Left unmentioned:  the standards will be lower than they are at majority white or majority Asian schools. Unmentioned but not unnoticed, obviously. If blacks and Hispanics were achieving at the same level, then no one would bother with affirmative action, much less banning it.

Evidence of the lower standards are a time-honored journalism time-killer; I wrote about the  Kashawn Campbell saga a few years ago as an example. But sob stories usually involve kids in the deepest of high poverty cases. Often the top 10% of an all URM low-performing high school will go on to decent colleges and do adequately. They might be the ones we read about who abandon STEM and go into an identity major, but a decent chunk of them are getting through the system that was rigged for them just as anticipated.

Still, these kids represent a  chilling inequity. The  de facto segregation that enable this faux meritocracy mean that the B and even C kids at almost any other type of school is more accomplished, on average.

Just recently I looked at African American participation in AP classes over the past 20 years. Mean scores dropped in almost every test, and scores of 1 saw the most growth.  Hispanics have similar stats. Beware any time someone brags about Hispanic AP pass rates–they have the Spanish Literature and Language tests boosting their scores. Whites and Asians…don’t.

Many black and Hispanic students are prepared and can pass the tests.  An open question, though, is whether the qualified kids are going to the schools that offer up the top 10%. I have my doubts.

But urban schools aren’t really playing GPA games–not consciously, anyway. They don’t have time. Other schools are a different story.

Majority URM charters, for example, have the same incentives as urban public schools–more, even, since what’s the point of charters if there’s no bragging to be done? Charters can be very subjective about grades. Other, more diverse (at least at first)  charters are progressive, designed for suburban parents in racially diverse school districts who aren’t quite wealthy enough for private school or houses in less racially diverse districts.

These suburban charters have another advantage. Remember Emily in Waiting for Superman? Emily’s public high school is in Woodside, California, one of the richest communities in the country. Woodside is considered a very strong school for those in the top track, offering a number of high performance classes that aren’t just open to anyone. Emily wasn’t considered strong enough for these classes, so she went to Summit, a school that’s very grateful for any donations. Think Emily got better grades at Summit?

I’ve written much about “Asian” schools (more than 50% Asian), as well as their selection of Advanced Placement class preferences, as well as the fact that their grades and test scores often seem acquired with no retention (and perhaps not acquired). Most of the students take 11 or 12 AP courses in a high school career, valedictorians have GPAs above 4.4, and they’re ten-way ties. Taking geometry freshman year is considered remedial.

But as both Toppo and Jaschik report, it’s predominantly wealthy and white schools, public and private, that have seen the most inflation.  I suspect that these schools have increased GPAs the most because grades were lower to begin with. These kids were once considered in an entirely different context from affirmative action admits. They had better course offerings, better teachers, stricter grades, but of course much higher test scores. Twenty years ago, affirmative action bans kicked in and Asian immigration skyrocketed. These parents began to realize the competitive disadvantage their children faced and I suspect started demanding more. Class rankings probably disappeared for similar reasons–their 40th percentile student achieves far more than the best students from urban schools. Don’t feel too bad for the students–remember, given a choice between a casually high-achieving rich white and an endlessly studying, grade-obsessed Bangladeshi immigrant who has been attending test prep since second grade, the white kid wins every time. Their parents write checks. Plus, legacy.

I know next to nothing about poor white rural schools. Reporters and colleges don’t care about them, and I don’t have any nearby to study.

So that’s all the “racially isolated” cases, be they URM, white, or Asian. What’s left? The Woodside Highs that Emily wanted to escape, at the high end, and schools like mine at the low end. The integrated schools.

Integrated high performing schools, in rich areas that can’t quite shut out the low income and middle class kids, are tracked without fear of lawsuits. Usually three tracks: high (mostly whites and Asians), medium (white boys and  strong URMs, but a mix of everything), low (almost entirely URM).  The rich parents will take their kids, and their money, elsewhere if they can’t be assured of high standards. There will be no talk of insufficient black and Hispanic students in the advanced classes, but nor will there be complaints  if the students are qualified.

Integrated low performing schools, like mine, can’t track and can’t assure high standards. There will be talk of insufficient black and Hispanic students in the advanced classes, and wholly unqualified kids are often plunked in despite loud protests from both teacher and students.

In lower performing integrated schools–stop, for a minute. I don’t mean these schools are terrible or that kids graduate incompetent. But these are schools that can’t really push high achievers hard, because of the racial imbalances that result and get them into  trouble. Asians dominate the top track. Their parents demand that their kids be put into advanced classes early, often look for ways they can test out of requirements. White parents in these schools are usually middle or lower class. While they’re often concerned about school, they aren’t planning on stressing the next four years. They’ve realized that their kids are probably going to spend two years at community college and hey, why fight about it? They know competing with the Asians is out–white kids rarely want academic achievement that badly, and their parents don’t blame them. White parents’ biggest fear is the contagion of low grades. Not only are there many other kids around failing classes, making summer school or repeating classes seem normal, but the teachers are used to giving Fs–in fact, sometimes they get in trouble if their Fs aren’t racially balanced. My guess:  white kids at integrated schools have seen relatively little GPA boost in the last 20 years.

Demographic footprints being what they are, Asians and white kids will still fill the top ten percent plans, leaving room only for really bright, accomplished black and Hispanic kids. Average black and Hispanic kids, who would shine at a majority URM school, are often getting Bs and Cs despite far better skills. This is a point I can speak to personally, having seen it often in test prep.  Black or Hispanic kids with low test scores and 3.9 GPAs from weak progressive charters, while those going to the local public schools have 2.5 or lower GPAs and much higher test scores.

So grades at integrated schools, whether high oer low performing, are a drag. At high performing schools, grades are intensely competitive. At lower performing schools ( these integrated low performing schools are a drag for everyone except Asian immigrant kids.  If Asian parents would stop cocooning, they could probably get much better results by spreading out around the country, ten to twenty a school. Enough to tie for valedictorian. But most of them appear to be doing their best to force racial isolation. Asian immigrants, at least, have little interest in attending integrated schools.

Of course, not all Asian kids fit this profile, just as many blacks and Hispanics pass AP tests in Calculus, US History, and Biology.

If I had to rank my personal preference, the rich white kid schools do some fine educating. All Asian schools and high performing integrated schools are joyless places, although the latter have some stupendous sports.

What the integration advocates want, I think, are what they see in progressive charters. Children of all abilities, working and playing together, learning at the same pace, earnest, hardworking, and virtuous. But charters are artificial environments. True integration would probably look something like my school. Poor black and Hispanic kids would get better educations, but worse grades. Colleges wouldn’t be able to get around affirmative action bans. High standards would be impossible unless we were allowed to track.

I do believe they call this a collective action problem.

Anyway. Grades are increasing because colleges are de-emphasizing test scores. Yes, this means they should be required to return to testing, but perhaps in such a way that Asians couldn’t game it? And as Saul Geiser suggests, perhaps criterion referenced tests would be better.

See why I loathe grades?

This is a bit disjointed; I’ve been having trouble focusing lately. I may rewrite it later.



College Admissions, Race, and Unintended Consequences

The Big Reveal on Cal’s holistic admissions process created much fuss, most of it on behalf of Asians who are clearly the victims of discriminatory behavior.

I’m fussed, too. But most people don’t completely understand how this “problem” came about, and why the UC and other universities are discriminating against Asians. It’s not so much “affirmative action for whites” as it is unintended consequences of being forbidden to use affirmative action for blacks and Hispanics.

The GPA Demographic Footprint

In November of 1996, the UC system was told by the people of California that it was not allowed to consider race in admissions anymore. The UC system, like all universities in this country, wasn’t about to listen to the rabble. So, as Saul Geiser writes, the system went looking for a reason to reduce the weight given test scores.

Such differences in the demographic footprint of HSGPA and standardized tests are of obvious importance for expanding access and equity in college admissions, especially at those institutions where affirmative action has been curtailed or ended. … at those institutions where affirmative action has been challenged or eliminated, admissions officers have been forced to reevaluate the role of standardized tests as selection criteria.

The result has been a de-emphasis of standardized tests as admissions criteria at some institutions.
UC introduced “comprehensive review,” an admissions policy that more systematically took into account the impact of socioeconomic factors, such as parents’ education and family income, on students’ test scores and related indicators of academic achievement. [note: this is the process described in the NY Times article]. UC also revised its Eligibility Index, a numerical scale which sets minimum HSGPA and test-score requirements for admission to the UC system; the revised index gave roughly three-quarters of the weight to HSGPA and the remainder to standardized tests. … Under this policy [of Eligibility in the Local Context], which also took effect in 2001, students’ class rank within high school was determined solely on the basis of their HSGPA in college preparatory coursework, so that the effect of this policy, too, was to diminish the role of standardized tests in UC admissions.

So de-emphasize those evil, racist tests that traditionally represent, in the typical progressive’s mind, a means of reinforcing the institutionalized hegemony of the white man’s values. Grades, in contrast, reflected the school’s values, the school’s priorities. So majority URM schools, both charters and inner city, can put whatever grades they like on classes that can be called whatever they want. UC officials made the change, along with Eligibility in the Local Context, so that majority URM schools could lie about their students’ academic abilities properly reflect the students’ diligence and abilities in subjects simply not valued by the institutional racists at the College Board.

The problem is, alas, that UC admissions made changes to their policy based on the “demographic footprint” of tests, but they forgot about the demographic footprint of grades.

Namely: Asians, particularly recent immigrant Asians, kill whites on grades. The test score advantage is getting (suspiciously) worse, but the grade advantage is huge.

That wasn’t part of the plan. Look, universities know the game as well as anyone: grades are a fraud. That’s why, until relatively recently, all universities weighted test scores as high or higher than grades.

If high school grades were objectively accurate, why does the University of California have an entry level writing requirement?—and why is that writing requirement either a test or a college level course? (And I have my own doubts of college level courses, but more on that later.) Why is remediation a huge issue in state colleges? If high school grades meant anything, schools could just accept students with high grades and hey, presto. Problem solved.

But Saul Geiser is a good researcher, and his study finds that HSGPA is as good or better a predictor of freshman GPA as test scores. Sure. But that brings up another point: Freshman GPA is pretty worthless, too. It’s a metric that goes back to a time when everyone took the same classes. It’s ancient. It predates the growing disconnect between grades and ability.

I’d go further and argue that in total, college GPA is worthless for much the same reasons that high school GPA is. We hear constant stories about grade inflation at elite schools, while public universities are under tremendous pressure to pass as many wholly unqualified blacks and Hispanics as they can, given the huge number that can’t even get past the remedial classes. How can grade point average mean anything in a world that requires some students to pass calculus and while others only take remedial math (which they can skip if they got an SAT score of 600+)?

If college grades were objectively accurate, the “mismatch theory“, for better or worse, couldn’t even be conceived of. If an A at Harvard is the same as an A at Berkeley which is the same as an A at Florida State, then lower ability students couldn’t get higher GPAs at Florida State and Richard Sanders shouldn’t be pushing his mismatch theory. Besides, what do you suppose the renewed push for a college exit exam is about? And in a world where we did require an exit exam, what would be the best predictor of passing rates—college grades or incoming SAT scores? Everyone knows that answer: unless the exit exam was rigged, we’d find that passing rates were best predicted by SAT scores, which would show a distressing, racially uneven, distribution.

I understand that GPAs are a useful metric because the people who use them filter the data through context—race, school, major, and so on. That’s fine, but not when you have the University of California claiming that HSGPA predicts four-year college outcomes when the university in questions sending easily half of its URM admits into remediation classes.

UC knows this. The whole GPA thing is just cover. What did a little lie matter, if it allowed them to bring in more blacks and Hispanics and thwart the will of California voters? The only people hurt would be the kids who didn’t get 4.0s.

Except that turned out to be a whole hell of a lot of kids with really good SAT scores, a whole lot of them white. So let’s look at four UC campuses:



3.75+ GPA




% 600+

% 700+

% 600+

% 700+

% 600+

% 700+









San Diego









Santa Barbara









Santa Cruz










The reality of demographic footprints being what they are, the kids represented by these numbers are almost exclusively white or Asian. Any black or Hispanic getting scores above 600 are usually going to a higher ranked private school. Keep in mind that these stats are leaving out UCLA, Irvine, and Davis, technically ranked second, fourth, and sixth, although the difference between UCSB, Irvine, and Davis metrics are primarily in the demographics.

In other words, a hell of a lot of kids are getting 2000+ SAT scores who aren’t getting into the top 3 schools, while a whole bunch of kids with 1800-2000 scores are. And the difference, for the most part, is grades. In the days before California banned affirmative action, the UCs weighted grades and test scores much closer to evenly—a 3.8 GPA with excellent test scores and a demanding schedule could easily get into Cal or UCLA. No more.

So the GPA edge led to unanticipated consequences and a huge advantage for Asians. But that was just one of the problems.

Changing the SAT

The UC system wasn’t content with just devaluing test scores, so they tried another change that had terrible blowback, again in the Asian category. First, in 2002, Richard Atkinson called for an end to the SAT and a greater use of the SAT Subject tests. By 2005, the SAT had been completely revamped, the College Board having clearly understood the hint.

While I can’t be certain, I think the original changes were intended to increase the number of blacks and Hispanics eligible by making the test burden lighter. At this point, the UC doesn’t appear to have been thinking about Asian overrepresentation. I’m not sure this was caused by anything other than Atkinson’s pet fancy, which is sad, given the consequences—which have gone well beyond Caliornia.

I haven’t been a fan of the new SAT. My sense has always been that it became much easier, and more amenable to swotters. But not until I worked on this piece did I realize how much easier, and how much more apparently coachable it is, particularly for those who take hundreds of hours of test prep. The College Board releases percentile ranks by race and ethnicity, but I can’t find the original files for anything before 2005. (If anyone can, then you’re a hell of a googler and send them my way.)

However, I found a book that cites exactly the file I want.


So in 1995, 14% of Asians, 5.8% of whites, and .6% of blacks scored over 700 in math, which means that the percentile for 700 was 86%, 94%, and 99%. In 2010 (confirm here), those percentiles were 77%, 94%, and 1%.

Only Asians got a lot smarter? Weird. Not impossible. A lot more Chinese and Koreans are taking the test. Not my pick as an explanation, though.

In 1995, the verbal percentile ranks for 700 were (I think) 98.2% Asian, 98.7% for whites, and 99+% for blacks. While this article doesn’t mention it, the 2010 rankings show that the corresponding 700 percentile rankings are now 92%, 94%, and 99%.

Have whites and Asians have gotten a lot smarter in verbal? No. If you won’t take my word for it, check out GRE scores during that time, which was very similar to the 1995 SAT throughout the 90s and before and after, did not see a corresponding increase in scores.

Or–my pick–the reading test has gotten a lot easier, which I’ve been telling to anyone who will listen, and, in my opinion, it’s gotten easier in a way that allows it to be coached more effectively. And the coaching has become more effective over time. Let’s look at all the data together, with a couple more years from the new SAT:


Math 700 %ile

Verbal 700 %ile




















(Cite for 2006, 2012).

Weird. SAT scores are generally pretty stable. Until I started researching this, I had no idea that the Asian increase was that dramatic, and it is part of a series of discoveries over past year making me wonder if the big gap between Asian and white test prep use (and time spent in test prep) is doing more than just giving Asians a slight edge. This piece is long enough without bringing up the ACT, but I believe that a 700 M corresponds to a 32—or it used to, anyway—and notice that a 32 is only 85%ile for Asians. I have been working on these two essays for ten days or so, and I haven’t yet been able to find ACT percentiles by race over the past ten years or so. Reading and English appear to be roughly the same. However, almost three times as many Asians take the SAT as take the ACT.

One other thing to keep in mind—the number of native Chinese and Koreans taking the test has exploded. Are they fluent in English? Ask any university freshman at an elite school with a Chinese or Korean grad student instructor. So by any stretch, the Asian mean should have been dropping slightly, shouldn’t it? Which means either Asian Americans have gotten phenomenally better, the Chinese/Korean nationals are also getting high Verbal SAT scores, or….what? What explains this jump?

Whites had increased scores in reading, which I believe supports my contention that the 2005 changes were easier. Why did white math scores stay stable? That’s part of a longer post that’s all intuition on my part. Suffice it to say that the SAT math section is both shorter and easier. This helps people with high attention to detail who aren’t as intuitively strong in math. (yes, I know, the SAT supposedly tests higher math since 2005. Too long for this post, but I would disagree.) However, I do understand there could be other factors at work.

I’ll write more about various things that might be the cause of the extremely strange boost in Asian math and verbal scores in the next post, but for now, let’s leave it at this: UC had a big problem. The changes they had hoped might improve scores for blacks and Hispanics (my interpretation) had instead led to unimaginable increases in high Asian scores in the SAT.

More Subject Tests! No, wait. No Subject Tests!

The College Board obligingly did UC’s bidding in making the test easier (my read), but UC continued to follow Atkinson’s directive by requiring two optional subject tests. Previously, applicants had to take two required tests that were much easier than the others (Writing and Math 1C), and then one optional test. Now, the Writing and Math 1C tests were disallowed, and students had to choose two of the “harder” subject tests to take. This requirement handed Asians an enormous advantage over whites. To see why, just check out the percentile rankings of the subject tests—but before you do, close your eyes and stereotype like mad. What subject tests do you think Asians are more likely to take? Okay, now look. Get a load of those Chinese and Korean tests! Roughly half of all takers get an 800–and check out how many of the testers are native speakers. My goodness gracious.

Notice, too, the skew on the Math 2c test. I’ve tutored students in both the Math 2c and English Lit tests for around a decade. It is far easier to prep students for the Math 2c than it is the English Literature test. The test is considerably more difficult as well, because high schools directly cover the math subject matter, but don’t cover the English Lit subject matter, which relies far more on, dare I say, innate literary analysis skills.

In general, subject tests aren’t subjected (hahahaha) to the same scrutiny as the SAT. It’s well known, for example, that the score distributions are wacky, and that in certain tests–Physics, I’m looking at you–the lowest score is higher than the usual 200. I’m not a psychometrician, but I’d love to have someone make the College Board explain this document. Why, if more people finish the English test and get the same amount right, are the scores so much lower? Why, given the much higher accuracy rate of the Korean and Chinese listening tests, aren’t the tests made more difficult? But I digress.

And so, just a decade after Richard Atkinson called for an end to the SAT as an admissions tool and complete reliance on the Subject tests, UC does a complete 180, ending the use of subject tests in admissions. Asians knew instantly this was All About Them, and there was little attempt to deny it:

It was also noted that white students seem to be the winners under the new guarantee; this should be of concern to Council. BOARS Chair Rashid acknowledged that the percentage of white students does indeed go up and the percentage of Asian students goes down. The reason for this is that Asian students seem to be very good at figuring out the technical requirements of UC eligibility. If the subject exam is removed, even more white and Asian students meet the requirements of eligibility. Political perception is another concern. This proposal should also not be viewed as the ultimate solution to diversity. It was also noted that the numbers of females goes up under either scenario.

(emphasis mine.)

Please note that bolded comment. They aren’t saying drats, Asians are smarter. Or drats, we need diversity.

Read the rest of the memo to see the various hoops they jumped through in order to get this cover.

Back where it all started
You know what would have been much easier? Require four Subject tests: English Lit, Math 2c, American History, and a Science. Asians would still do well, but it would have been harder. Dump the SAT, dump or devalue grades. If nothing else, we’d be giving smart kids of all races a chance to show their stuff purely through test scores, imperfect as they may be, rather than the vagaries of teacher assessment.

But that gets UC right back to the problem it started with, the reason it emphasized GPA over test scores in the first place, the problem that it created just to give them a cover story for ignoring the will of the California voters (and, eventually, the constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court). A test-score only admissions process would eliminate almost all blacks and Hispanics from consideration. The problem: every attempt to bring in more blacks and Hispanics leads to more Asians.

Problem? Why is it a problem? Shouldn’t the universities just let the chips fall where they may? If the schools are overwhelmingly Asian, so what?

Well, for starters, relying exclusively on grades leads to Kashawn Campbell at the low end—hell, Kashawn’s story singlehandedly reveals the need for test scores, the fraudulence of high school grades, and the sketchy nature of college grades in one neat little package.

But more importantly, a huge number of the Asians admitted are either nationals or first and second generation Chinese, Koreans, and Indians.

None of what I’ve written or will write is intended in any way to rationalize the discrimination against Asians. Quite the contrary. Any fair admissions process would lead to overrepresentation of Asians. But I hope to persuade readers that college admissions in its current form, in both private and public schools, is so corrupt that getting outraged about discrimination for or against any one demographic is pointless. Any outrage you find is counterbalanced by another, and no, it’s not as if it all works out.