Monet Spencer remembers traveling to affluent suburban high schools when she was a member of the marching band at Brashear High School in this city’s low-income, high-crime Beechview neighborhood.
The suburban band members’ uniforms were brand new, Spencer noticed—not passed down and worn-out like hers. So were their instruments, unlike the scratched and tarnished castoffs her school loaned her and her bandmates, including the secondhand flute she played.
The experience sticks in her mind as a symbol of the gulf between the opportunities she had compared to those enjoyed by students living in the suburbs just a few miles away.
“Everyone knows they’re treated differently,” said the soft-spoken Spencer, 19, who was left homeless when her mother died but continued taking herself to school and is now entering her sophomore year in college.
Here’s the latest, more profound way in which wealthier students have an advantage over lower-income ones: Those enrolled in private and suburban public high schools are being awarded higher grades—critical in the competition for college admission—than their urban public school counterparts with no less talent or potential, new research shows.
It’s not that those students have been getting smarter. Even as their grades were rising, their scores on the SAT college-entrance exam went down, not up. Nor are those in some schools more intelligent than those in others.
It’s that grade inflation is accelerating in the schools attended by higher-income Americans, who are also much more likely to be white, the research by the College Board found. This widens their lead in life over students in urban public schools who are generally, racial and ethnic minorities and from families that are far less well-off.
“This is just another systemic disadvantage that we put in front of low-income kids and kids of color,” said Andrew Nichols, director of higher education research at The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
The grade-point average of students at private high schools who took the SAT climbed between 1998 and 2016 from 3.25 to 3.51, or almost 8%, the College Board found in research to be published early next year.
In suburban public high schools, it went from 3.25 to 3.36.
In city schools, it hardly budged, moving from 3.26 to 3.28.
“If there were a uniform upward drift, then we would have one problem,” said Michael Hurwitz, senior director at the College Board, who led the research. “But this drift causes another problem: The variation does seem aligned with wealth in a very troubling way.”
Troubling, but not surprising, said Richard Weissbourd, director of the Human Development and Psychology program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Private schools in particular, Weissbourd said, “to be attractive to parents, need to be able to tout how many of their students went to selective colleges. So they’re incentivized to give better grades.”
The same concern about college admission drives parents of students in suburban schools to pressure principals and teachers, he said. “It becomes very high maintenance for schools to deal with aggressive parents. So that can also push grades up.”
Then the cycle repeats.
“This is one of those things that works like a contagion,” Weissbourd said. “If you’re an independent school or a suburban school and you’re giving Bs and the school in the next community is giving A-minuses, you start to feel like those kids are going to get a leg up. So you start giving out A-minuses.”
Public schools in urban areas seldom seem to feel the same pressure. When her mother calls the public high school in Pittsburgh where Olivia Hall is entering her sophomore year, the 15-year-old said, “They put her on hold and tell her the principal and guidance counselor are busy.”
All of this throws up yet another barrier in front of urban public high school students, who already face an obstacle course of challenges to getting into college.
The problem takes on even greater consequence as growing numbers of admissions offices make ACT and SAT tests optional and rely still more on GPAs. (As to whether the College Board, which administers the SAT, is acting in its own interest by drawing attention to these trends, Hurwitz said the organization simply has the greatest access to test and grade data.)
“People say, all things being equal, that a 3.8 is stronger than a 3.6,” said Philip Ballinger, associate vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at the University of Washington. “But all things aren’t equal.”
Some institutions adjust for this. Universities and colleges that recruit in limited areas of the country usually enroll enough graduates from particular schools to gauge the relative accuracy of students’ GPAs, said Ballinger.
But many admissions offices don’t have the resources to do that level of analysis.
“This is especially an issue for the big universities and colleges that can’t really dig into the context of a kid’s high school experience,” said Weissbourd. “And that’s where most people are applying—big state schools that are dealing with 50,000 applications. They can’t make these judgments. They can’t say, ‘There’s grade inflation here but not there.’ They’re just looking at the GPAs.”
Even if they do have the capacity to look more deeply into the records of students whose grades may not reflect their effort or intelligence, universities are rewarded by college rankings for accepting applicants whose GPAs are highest.
That’s only one of many ways in which the cards are stacked against the graduates of urban public schools.
“We’ve been giving these students the short end of the stick for a long time,” said Nichols.
Many of those rankings use a formula that also factors in SAT scores, for example, prompting colleges to favor students from private and suburban high schools whose families can afford test preparation services.
Wealthier schools are more likely to have college preparation courses, too. Just under 90% of the wealthier districts in a study of the nation’s 100 largest school systems by the Center for Law and Social Policy offer calculus, for instance, compared to 41% of high-poverty schools.
“Everybody tells us to follow our dreams, but they’re not teaching us what we need,” said Makeiya Bennett, 15. Like Hall and Spencer, Bennett—who is entering her sophomore year in high school—was attending a college-level summer program at Carlow University, run by an organization called the Neighborhood Learning Alliance, for Pittsburgh Public School students to get a head start on their higher educations. (“Being in a city school where I don’t get as much help, I wanted to grab a hold of this opportunity,” Bennett said.)
Urban students are also more likely to come from low-income homes and have parents who did not themselves go to college and don’t know how to navigate the complexities of the application and financial aid processes—or the credential-building that precedes them.
That leaves these students more dependent on their college counselors. But according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the typical college counselor in a public high school is responsible for 358 students—more than in private schools (323 students) and far more than the ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association (250-to-1).
The caseload rises to 510 students per counselor in the largest schools, many of them in cities. One in five high schools has no counselors at all, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found. And counselors in public schools report spending less than half as much time on college advising as their counterparts in private schools.
Students in schools that serve low-income populations even get less instruction time, a new study by researchers at UCLA suggests. It found that students in high-poverty high schools in California spend the equivalent of nearly 10 fewer days a year learning than their more affluent counterparts, because of emergency lockdowns, teacher absences, testing, a lack of computers and noisy or dirty conditions.
“It’s a terribly uneven playing field,” Weissbourd said.
Disadvantages like these and others mean that students from the lowest-income families today are roughly nine times less likely to earn bachelor’s degrees by the time they’re 24 than students from the highest-income ones, according to the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.
Nichols, at The Education Trust, suggests that college admissions officers adopt a “socioeconomic index” that gives extra points to applicants who come from certain socioeconomic backgrounds or types of high schools, to offset the effects of grade inflation in the places where the wealthiest and whitest students go.
But he acknowledges that this is hard to do, considering the emotions involved in parents’ aspirations for their children—even when they know that trying to get an edge for their kids may result in inequitable treatment for other people’s.
“A lot of people are going to do what’s best for their own kids,” Nichols said. “They’re trying to set things up to give their kids the best opportunity they can have. And that doesn’t lead to particularly good public policy.”
Back at the Neighborhood Learning Alliance summer program, another student, Josh Faust, said “it’s discouraging” to find that their counterparts in more affluent schools get higher GPAs than he and his classmates at the public Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, from which he graduated in the spring.
“They have the same ability that we do, but get better grades just because of what high school they go to,” said Faust, 17, who is also about to enter college.
But Precious Jackson, 18, an incoming freshman planning to major in bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh, said these hurdles only make her more resolved to overcome them.
“I feel like people have low expectations of us,” Jackson said. “I feel like I have to work harder. But that builds character.”
She and many of her friends have another motivation to move on and earn degrees: They want to leave behind their low-income status. “If you look at where a lot of people come from, you don’t want to live there. It’s not just about succeeding; it’s about taking your life in another direction.”
That’s what Shahada Ghaffar intends to do, too. A 16-year-old Pittsburgh high school junior, Ghaffar said she thinks many of her classmates are discouraged from even trying to get into the best colleges.
To them, “I would just say, reach for the stars,” she said, and apply to the best colleges. “The worst they can do is say no.”
This story was written by Jon Marcus and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.