At the end of last year, reports came out that the average ACT score was the lowest it has been for the past 30 years. The average SAT score dropped in comparison to recent years as well. Initially, this might seem alarming when considering the state of the future of higher education, but this might actually be a sign that the world of higher education is moving in a very positive direction.
Grade inflation, or an overall rise in the average grades students are receiving, is often cited as one of the major flaws with the current American education system. Often, students’ GPAs and standardized test scores (such as on the ACT or SAT) are both identified as areas that have been inflated over the last decade or two. As grades and test scores rise across the board, it becomes more and more difficult for colleges to use students’ GPAs and standardized test scores to differentiate between different applicants, leading to a higher weight being placed on other parts of applications. At first, it may seem that a switch to holistic application review would be beneficial for students.
On the contrary, high school students are now expected to achieve academic perfection, athletic or musical prowess and become expert essay writers by the beginning of their senior year in order to have any hope of landing an acceptance to their dream colleges. Students no longer need to solely focus on academic achievement to get into their college of choice. Now, the pressure is dialed up within every single facet of their life to achieve perfection and greatness or risk a stunted future. In combination with the impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic had on students, today’s high schoolers really never seem to be able to catch a break from unprecedented circumstances impacting their formative life experiences. Never before has a college education been so critically important to qualify for many of the jobs required to even be comfortably middle class with a family. The pressure placed on teens can easily begin to feel as though they are being asked to fight an unwinnable battle, a feeling that can effortlessly transition into feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy.
This intense pressure has undoubtedly had a negative impact on the mental health of young Americans, leading to 40% of teens reporting that they felt “persistently sad or hopeless,” according to the CDC. The mental health crisis among teenagers has escalated to the point that the American Academy of Pediatrics has declared the situation a national state of emergency.
As the average score on the ACT trends downwards, this creates the opportunity for these standardized test scores to once again provide students an opportunity to differentiate themselves from their peers in the college application process without having to somehow prove themselves to be a savant at the piano or a world class athlete. If the college application process no longer required students to cure cancer to even be considered for admission, the world of higher education would be changed for the better.
By the time they reach their first year of college, many students are already incredibly burnt out, leading to over one-fourth of all collegiates dropping out before they receive their bachelor’s degree. This staggering statistic reflects the unsustainability of the current experience of being a high school student hoping to go to college and the toll that the process takes on many students. As the nation considers how to fix a broken education system, reducing the pressure being put on high school students to achieve multidisciplinary perfection by continuing to work against grade inflation is a critical first step towards meaningful change.