Score Inflation


Score inflation results when student scores on tests or other assessments increase but the increase does not reflect any genuine improvements in learning—i.e., the instrument being used to measure learning acquisition and growth is providing a false reading because (1) the testing design or processes are flawed or (2) educators are inadvertently or intentionally inflating student scores. Score inflation has been compared to holding a lit match to a thermometer in a cold room: while the thermometer reading indicates that the temperature is rising, the room remains cold.

There are two main problems associated with score inflation: (1) students appear to be improving academically when they’re not, and they may consequently not receive the additional instruction, attention, and academic support they need to improve and succeed, and (2) elected officials, policy makers, parents, and the public are given the misleading impression that schools are improving or performing adequately when in fact performance may be stagnating or even deteriorating.

There are a number of educational practices that can contribute to score inflation, and although some may be sanctioned, or even encouraged, by principals and other school leaders, many are generally recognized as cheating. While score inflation can be caused by a variety of factors, it is primarily associated with high-stakes testing. The following are a few representative examples of the ways in which scores may be misleadingly high or artificially inflated:

  • If teachers are under pressure to improve student scores on high-stakes tests—because there is a risk that low scores will lead to sanctions, bad publicity, or withheld bonuses, for example—they may “teach to the test” by drilling students in test-preparation strategies and focusing narrowly on topics and questions that are expected to be on a test. In some cases, educators have even been caught cheating. For example, school administrators and teachers may gain access to test questions and review them in advance, they may display correct answers on a blackboard during the administration of a test, they may systematically change incorrect answers to the correct ones, or they may expel historically low-performing students before they can take a standardized test to increase overall school-performance scores.
  • Test questions can be made easier. For example, a test administered in eleventh grade may reflect an eighth-grade learning level, or the performance level considered to be “passing” or “proficient” may be lowered to manufacture the perception that underperforming students are achieving at expected levels.
  • Students can be given extra time to complete tests, or they may receive some other form of “help” from adults during the testing period.
  • Either on their own initiative or at the direction of administrators, teachers may provide intensive instruction and academic support to a smaller group of students who are deemed most likely to improve their scores enough meet expected benchmarks for improvement. If the intensively supported students improve from just below to just above the cutoff score for “proficiency” on a test, for example, it can help a school meet improvement expectations—at least technically—and avoid negative consequences, even though the learning needs of other students in the class may be neglected.


The growing use of high-stakes testing has increased both discussion of and debate about score inflation in public education. Proponents of high-stakes testing tend to argue that the strategy motivates teachers and students to improve academic achievement, and the associated consequences help hold educators and schools accountable for improving educational results. Critics, however, may claim that the tests have created “perverse” incentives that will—perhaps inevitably—lead to problems such as score inflation, test manipulation, and cheating, rather than to genuine learning improvement.

While score inflation is largely seen as a negative phenomenon, some educators see little harm in assigning consequences to test results, and they may therefore be dismissive of score inflation, reasoning that, if the tests are well designed and they measure what students are expected learn, “teaching to the test” is a good thing—i.e., the practice is precisely what is needed, since it will help to ensure that students receive a high-quality education. In this case, test scores may not necessarily be considered “inflated” at all, since stronger test performance could be seen as “the goal” or as sufficient evidence that stronger learning improvement has been achieved.

Other educators may argue that high-stakes tests, and the resulting incentives to inflate scores, distort the fundamental purpose of education: rather than teaching students the most important knowledge and skills they will need in adult life, teachers are pressured to focus on test preparation and the more narrow range of knowledge and skills measured by tests. In this view, test preparation and success—as opposed to broader educational objectives, such as college and career preparation and success—are the implicit “goal” of education, and misleading test results may be widely accepted as sufficient evidence of success.