Student GPA and test score gaps are growing—and could be slowing pandemic recovery

Tom Swiderski and
tom swiderski headshot
Tom Swiderski Postdoctoral Research Associate, EPIC - University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Sarah Crittenden Fuller
sarah crittenden fuller headshot
Sarah Crittenden Fuller Research Associate Professor - UNC-Chapel Hill and EPIC

November 6, 2023

  • Administrative data from North Carolina shows that while students’ state exam scores have declined since pre-pandemic, their course grades are similar to pre-pandemic levels.
  • This growing gap between student GPAs and achievement could be contributing to parents’ confusion about the extent of their children’s needs for pandemic recovery supports and an under-utilization of recovery programs.
  • Strong communication between schools and communities will be key to ensuring the success of recovery efforts at the scale needed to reverse pandemic learning losses.
Child hiding bad test score from mother

The harm to student learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has been well documented, and an incredible influx of resources—including $260 billion in federal government investment—has been dedicated to support schools’ recovery. Much of this money has been spent developing and expanding academic recovery efforts such as after-school tutoring and summer learning programs. Yet participation in recovery programs has been disappointingly low, often reaching no more than 20% to 30% of targeted students.

Although some students may not participate in recovery programs due to barriers related to program accessibility, experts suggest there may also be an “urgency gap” among parents, who may be underestimating the extent to which their children are behind. Surveys of parents have found that while the vast majority recognize that the pandemic harmed students’ math and reading achievement in general, most also report far more positive outlooks for their own children’s academic progress.

Understanding the urgency gap is vital. While tutoring and other recovery programs can be effective at improving student achievement, students cannot benefit if they do not participate, potentially slowing the pace of academic recovery.

In this piece, we describe one possible reason for the urgency gap – that while students’ test scores have fallen dramatically, their GPAs have not. And because parents often rely on report card grades to interpret how their children are doing in school, this growing gap between student GPAs and achievement may be contributing to parents’ confusion about the extent of their children’s needs for recovery supports.

Comparing post-pandemic grades and test scores

We begin by showing how students’ grades and test scores have changed since the onset of the pandemic using student-level data from North Carolina. Figure 1 compares the percentage of students who earned an A or B in their math class and the percentage who met proficiency benchmarks on their end-of-grade state math exam in 2018-19 and 2021-22. In 2018-19, the percentage of students who earned an A or B in math was the same as the proficiency rate (54%). However, by 2021-22, there was a sizable gap between these metrics, as proficiency rates decreased much more than grades. As of 2021-22, the proficiency rate had fallen by 11 percentage points (to 43%) while the percentage of students earning As or Bs had fallen by just 3 points (to 51%).

Figure 2 examines this data another way, depicting the average test scores of students in 2018-19 and 2021-22 disaggregated by the letter grade they received in math. At every letter grade, post-pandemic students averaged lower scores on state exams than pre-pandemic peers who received the same grade in math. The average test score of students who earned an A in math in 2021-22 was 0.20 standard deviations lower than the scores of pre-pandemic peers who earned an A. For students who earned a B, the gap was 0.25 standard deviations, and similar results can be observed for all other letter grades. This highlights that even students with high course grades are scoring much lower on state exams than pre-pandemic peers who earned similar grades.

Understanding the difference between grades and test scores

Differences between standardized test scores and grades are not unexpected, as these are different measures that provide different insights into students’ performance in school. Standardized test scores offer a consistent criterion of students’ performance over time that is comparable across large populations and cohorts—a feature that makes them very useful for understanding pandemic impacts and recovery. At the same time, test scores provide only a snapshot of a student’s knowledge at a single point in time, which can be influenced by factors such as students’ wellness on the day of a test, general feelings of test anxiety, and ability to guess multiple choice questions. As a result, many students and parents may feel that test scores do not fully represent their or their child’s skills, knowledge, and efforts.

On the other hand, course grades reflect a mix of students’ mastery of content covered by their instructor, as measured by exams and quizzes, as well as positive participation and effort, such as speaking up in class, completing homework, and generally behaving well. Course grades are a more holistic measure of student performance, and research shows this can make them a better predictor of postsecondary success than test scores. However, this means that grades and test scores can diverge over time for many reasons, due to either students’ or teachers’ actions. For example, students might increase effort, or teachers might slow instructional pacing to cover less content, introduce more lenient grading policies, or grade on a curve. Course grades are therefore less useful for understanding COVID-19 recovery because it is not clear how these practices—including grading standards—may have changed over time.

“Grade inflation” is a term often used to describe the phenomenon where GPAs rise faster than test scores over time, which was occurring pre-pandemic. This provides a useful frame of reference for understanding the post-pandemic trends we observe in North Carolina and which have also been observed nationally. However, the post-pandemic version has also taken a very different form than pre-pandemic. Post-pandemic grade inflation has resulted from GPAs not decreasing despite drops in test scores rather than GPAs rising despite stagnant test scores. The post-pandemic gap between grades and test scores opened up in a much more pronounced and sudden way than was occurring pre-pandemic. And post-pandemic grades are holding steady despite the fact that not only has achievement worsened, but so have other indicators of student engagement, such as attendance and reported behavior problems.

Importantly, the post-pandemic version of grade inflation may also be due to very different—and potentially more transient—underlying motivations than pre-pandemic. Some degree of grade inflation could be reasonable in the current moment for many reasons. It may be appropriate to provide some additional leniency towards students given the events of recent years, perhaps even more so given the poor state of youth mental health. Dramatically increasing course failure rates could create a crisis of its own by decreasing student morale and engagement, potentially leading to higher dropout rates, whereas rewarding students’ efforts to get back on track could be beneficial for increasing engagement. Further, because of the impacts of the pandemic, teachers may be spending more time reviewing old content, leading them to be unable to cover all grade-level standards. If so, it may be unfair to grade students poorly if they are learning the material that is covered in class but display gaps in knowledge on state tests that are more comprehensive.

At the same time, this trend is not without consequences. Most importantly, one likely consequence that we see is that parents, who often rely on their children’s grades to interpret their performance in school, are severely underestimating how far behind their children are. This, in turn, may be contributing to an under-utilization of recovery programs and, ultimately, a slow and stalling recovery.

Moving forward

To ensure that parents are fully informed about the impacts of the pandemic on their children, states, districts, and schools should aim to make sure that parents receive clear, consistent, and regular feedback about how their children are performing on work they are completing this year as well as how they are performing compared to historic norms and benchmarks. This may mean working to make sure that parents see how test scores and grades provide different, valuable insights into student performance, know how to interpret test scores, and ultimately recognize that their children may need recovery services even if they are receiving As and Bs (indeed, students themselves should understand this as well).

Meanwhile, state and federal government investment into recovery services should not end without a stronger understanding of why programs are being underutilized, particularly given that students will likely need years of additional support to return to pre-pandemic achievement levels. If barriers to program take-up can be addressed, services could reach more students and have a greater impact on recovery. State and federal investment should support schools and districts to conduct more outreach to better understand the needs, concerns, and beliefs about the impacts of the pandemic within their communities.

Recovering from the pandemic remains a monumental challenge requiring substantial investment from students, parents, educators, and policymakers alike. Failing to achieve a strong recovery may hinder not only students’ educational prospects, but also life course outcomes related to employment, health, and well-being. Strong communication between schools and communities will be key to ensuring the success of recovery efforts at the scale needed to reverse pandemic losses.


  • Footnotes
    1. Specifically, we use individual-level course transcript and test score records from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. We focus on grade 6 math, grade 7 math, grade 8 math, and Math 1 because these exams remained equivalently scaled between 2018-19 and 2021-22 (reading exams were rescaled between 2018-19 and 2021-22). To compare standardized scores across cohorts, we standardized the 2018-19 cohort’s scale scores (within exam) and then anchored post-pandemic cohorts’ scale scores to this distribution; in other words, we assigned post-pandemic students to have the standardized score that their scale score received in the 2018-19 cohort. We converted course grades to a 0-4 GPA scale following North Carolina state guidelines (e.g., an ‘A’ or a numeric grade of 90 percent or greater was coded as 4.0). North Carolina has made no statewide changes to grading standards outside of emergency measures in place for Spring 2020 only.