The title "valedictorian" was once a distinction, bestowed on the single highest achiever in a graduating class. Now, it’s an honor less rare. In 2014, the title went to 72 out of 222 graduates from an Ohio high school; the next year, 117 out of 457 students from one Virginia high school claimed it.

Meanwhile, high schools are increasingly withholding class rank from transcripts, and some have proposed eliminating grades altogether. New research from Michael Hurwitz (the College Board) and Jason Lee (University of Georgia) shows why it’s getting harder and harder to use grades alone to distinguish “the best and the brightest.” In this current climate, how can admission officers fairly differentiate among students applying for college? And how can students, no matter their background, stand out in the process?

“‘A’ grades are now the norm rather than the exception,” Hurwitz’s and Lee’s research concludes (their research, titled “Grade Inflation and the Role of Standardized Testing,” is slated for publication in a volume from Johns Hopkins University Press in January 2018). Building on a study from the U.S. Department of Education, they found that high school grade point averages (GPAs) are higher than ever. Since 1998, the number of SAT-takers with an A average has risen from 39 percent to 47 percent, despite a slight decline in SAT scores. But why?

Evidence points to grade inflation. “The reasons for this are many,” Hurwitz and Lee wrote, “but the upshot is clear: It is now harder than ever to distinguish between the academic performance of different students within the same classroom or school.”

A deeper look at where grade inflation rates have increased the most—and for which students—showed sharp differences across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups:

  • High schools with the largest increases in high school GPA over time also had the lowest percentage of students who were Black or Hispanic and students who were eligible for free or reduced price lunch.
  • Students whose parents had the lowest levels of education experienced the least grade inflation.
  • Students in private high schools (both independent and religiously-affiliated) were three times more likely to experience grade inflation than students in public or charter schools.

Gaps in high school GPA have widened over time, making it more difficult than ever for minority and lower-income students to distinguish themselves as academic contenders through their grades alone.

At the same time that grade inflation is on the rise, colleges are announcing test-optional policies, which de-emphasize college entrance exams as “checks” against grades in the admission process.

In 2015, a selective private college that went test-optional released the following statement:

“The test-optional policy should strengthen and diversify an already outstanding applicant pool and will broaden access for those high-achieving students who have historically been underrepresented at selective colleges and universities, including students of color, first-generation students and students from low-income households.”

While colleges that go SAT- and ACT-optional often list diversity as the driver, there’s little rigorous evidence that shows that these policies move the needle. In 2015, a peer-reviewed study by researchers at the University of Georgia and College Transitions LLC concluded that test-optional policies don’t contribute to increased socioeconomic and racial diversity on college campuses. In fact, the study authors found that colleges enrolled fewer Pell-eligible and minority students than similar test-requiring schools after they adopted these policies.

“Test-optional policies overall have not been the catalysts of diversity that many claimed them to be,” the researchers stated. “In sum, findings from our analyses indicate that test-optional policies enhance the appearance of selectivity, rather than the diversity, of adopting institutions.”

If test-optional policies have not succeeded in making college campuses more diverse, as Hechinger Report has pointed out, what they have done is drive higher application numbers, U.S. News and World Report rankings, and media attention.

Every year, more than 85 percent of all applications to four-year colleges go to institutions that require SAT or ACT scores. And in 46 states, the college that receives the most applications for admission still requires students to submit scores.

Increased media attention to test-optional policies suggests a large movement, but the numbers tell a different story. Every year, more than 85 percent of all applications to four-year colleges go to institutions that require SAT or ACT scores. And in 46 states, the college that receives the most applications for admission still requires students to submit scores.

What has been true for decades holds true today: all colleges accept SAT or ACT scores, and the vast majority require them during the application process. Even schools identified as test-optional often use the SAT to make decisions about course placement, academic counseling, and scholarships.

Leaders in the admissions community recognize the SAT is an important part of a holistic admission process—one that considers test scores as one factor among many that can show a students’ true potential for success.

“While I understand the decisions other institutions have made, at Yale, standardized testing, when considered alongside classroom achievement, helps reveal a student’s academic readiness and accomplishments,” says Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University. “Although a standardized test will never be able to truly capture or quantify qualities such as character, leadership, imagination, and originality—qualities that must be evaluated in other parts of a student’s college application—the SAT continues to be one reliable predictor, among many, of a student’s academic success at Yale.”

Research consistently finds what colleges have seen for years: The strongest and most reliable predictor of college success is SAT scores combined with high school grades.

The message that “students of color, first-generation students and students from low-income households” might benefit from SAT- or ACT-optional policies was familiar to Joshua Sims, a student from Camden, New Jersey.

“As a young black man, I was often told that tests weren't designed for me,” he said. “I was told if I wanted to go to college, I had to pick up a skill, like sports or art.”

While the SAT was created in 1926 to give students from a wider range of backgrounds a fair shot at showing they were ready for college, College Board President David Coleman has acknowledged that “a lot of barriers to access have grown up along the way.” That’s why, under Coleman’s leadership, the SAT has recently undergone the most significant overhaul in its history.

Joshua Sims, a student from Camden, New Jersey, is now a freshman at Cornell University. Photo courtesy of the College Board.

The new test, which was first administered in March 2016, focuses on what students are learning in high school and what they need to know to succeed in college and career. “It was time to shatter once and for all the bad idea that the SAT was an aptitude test, that the SAT measures something that’s unclear and hard to change,” said Coleman.

“I believe the redesigned SAT better reflects the challenging work students do in the classroom each day,” said Quinlan, “and it sends the right message that if you work hard in the classroom, you will significantly improve your chances of doing well on the SAT.”

It’s also the only college entrance exam that comes with free, personalized study tools, thanks to the College Board’s partnership with Khan Academy.

Sims struggled on the PSAT, but he refused to accept he couldn’t do well on the SAT. While expensive test prep was not an option for Josh’s family, he instead turned to Official SAT Practice on Khan Academy to create a free, individual study plan based on his PSAT results.   

Sims stayed up late every other night studying, often after band practice, motivated by his dream of attending an Ivy League school and becoming a lawyer. He took the SAT three times and ultimately earned a score of 1320.

“Although I lived in an inner city where many thought the SAT was unbeatable, I had beaten it,” said Sims.

“It wasn't easy, but I gained 300 points on my SAT and was now in the top seven percent in the world.”

“I believe the redesigned SAT better reflects the challenging work students do in the classroom each day, and it sends the right message that if you work hard in the classroom, you will significantly improve your chances of doing well on the SAT.”

Jeremiah Quinlan, Dean of Undergraduate Student Admissions at Yale University

During the college admission process, his score distinguished him from other applicants in a way grades alone might not have. This fall he’ll be a freshman at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.

New research suggests Sims’ isn’t alone. In May, the College Board and Khan Academy announced new findings, based on data from the first full year of the new SAT, linking Official SAT Practice to substantial student score gains from the PSAT/NMSQT to the SAT. Studying for the SAT on Official SAT Practice for 20 hours is associated with an average score gain of 115 points—nearly double the average score gain achieved by students who don't use Khan Academy. Researchers confirmed the score gains were consistent across gender, race, income, and high school GPA.

The College Board is working with districts, states, and other nonprofits to get Official SAT Practice into the hands of many more students. Organizations like the National Rural Education Association have focused on bringing these resources to rural and small towns, while the Council of Great City Schools has brought in large urban districts. Leading the charge are places likes Long Beach Unified School District (CA), Orange County Public Schools (FL), and Chicago Public Schools (IL), where record numbers of students have accessed and engaged with the free study tools during class time.

“What we’re so excited about is every young person in America getting the chance to learn a powerful lesson: that through devoted practice you can advance yourself,” said Coleman. “These tests can never tell you who you are, and they never should have. They are only an invitation to what you might become through practice. We’re trying to do everything in our power to make the SAT a launching pad from which students can change their future.”

While the title of valedictorian might not hold the same meaning it once did, the SAT does. Submitting SAT scores as part of a college application can open doors to opportunity not just for a privileged few, but for all students.