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Standardized tests are an important consideration for admissions at many colleges and universities. But one new study shows that high school performance, not standardized test scores, is a better predictor of how students do in college.
With spring fast approaching, many American high school seniors are now waiting anxiously to hear whether they got into the college or university of their choice. For many students, their scores on the SAT or the ACT will play a big role in where they get in.
That's because those standardized tests remain a central part in determining which students get accepted at many schools. But a first-of-its-kind study obtained by NPR raises questions about whether those tests are becoming obsolete.
On a drizzly Saturday in Belmont, Calif. high school students are walking out of the Belmont Library looking a little frazzled. They've just spent four hours communing with paper, chair and pencil.
Mara Meijer, a junior who wants to be a veterinarian, is among them.
"A lot of my teachers have said that if you don't have these scores, [colleges] won't even look at your applications," Meijer says. "I have tons of books at home that I practice over the weekend and after school, so I can work on upping my score."
"Upping my score" is a mantra for teens across the country. But Meijer questions — as do a growing number of students and parents — why America remains addicted to these standardized tests in the first place.
"They're not exactly a fair way to show our skills," she says. "I wish they could find some way to really show what we can do."
This study will be a first step in examining what happens when you admit tens of thousands of students without looking at their SAT scores. And the answer is, if they have good high school grades, they are almost certainly going to be fine.
William Hiss, Bates College former dean of admissions
Today, some 800 of the roughly 3,000 four-year colleges and universities in America make SAT or ACT submissions optional. But before a new study released Tuesday. no one had taken a hard, broad look at just how students who take advantage of "test-optional" policies are doing: how, for example, their grades and graduation rates stack up next to their counterparts who submitted their test results to admissions offices.
"Human intelligence is so multifaceted, so complex, so varied, that no standardized testing system can be expected to capture it," says William Hiss, the study's main author. Hiss is the former dean of admissions at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine — one of the nation's first test-optional schools — and has been conducting similar research for a number of years.
Doing Well, Despite Modest Scores
"My hope is that this study will be a first step in examining what happens when you admit tens of thousands of students without looking at their SAT scores," Hiss says. "And the answer is, if they have good high school grades, they're almost certainly going to be fine."
Hiss' study, "Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American College and University Admissions," examined data from nearly three-dozen "test-optional" U.S. schools, ranging from small liberal arts schools to large public universities, over several years.
Hiss found that there was virtually no difference in grades and graduation rates between test "submitters" and "nonsubmitters." Just 0.05 percent of a GPA point separated the students who submitted their scores to admissions offices and those who did not. And college graduation
rates for "nonsubmitters" were just 0.6 percent lower than those students who submitted their test scores.
(The six public universities included in the study are de facto test-optional; these schools collect scores but generally do not use them to determine admission unless a student's rank or high school grade point average is below a given threshold.
(Sixty-three percent of all enrollees at the public universities included in the study were admitted without testing taken into account. The study excludes or controlled for one subset of those students: The 35 percent of those applicants who tested above their institution's average scores. Those students would likely have been admitted, Hiss says, if their test scores were considered. Twenty-eight of the public school students included in the study had below-average scores and were admitted by their school's automatic admissions policy.)
"By any statistical methodology [these are] completely trivial differences," Hiss explains. "The nonsubmitters are doing fine in terms of their graduation rates and GPAs, and significantly outperforming their standardized testing."
The campus of Washington State University, Spokane. WSU, which has its main campus in Pullman, Wash. is one of 800 colleges and universities that have "test-optional" admissions policies. Peter G. Williams/AP hide caption
The campus of Washington State University, Spokane. WSU, which has its main campus in Pullman, Wash. is one of 800 colleges and universities that have "test-optional" admissions policies.
Peter G. Williams/AP
In other words, those students actually performed better in college than their SAT and ACT stores might lead an admissions officer to expect.
High School Grades Matter
The study has another clear result: High school grades matter — a lot. For both those students who submitted their test results to their colleges and those who did not, high school grades were the best predictor of a student's success in college. And kids who had low or modest test scores, but good high school grades, did better in college than those with good scores but modest grades.
Hiss says it's probably not so surprising that a pattern of hard work, discipline and curiosity in high school shows up "as highly predictive, in contrast to what they do in three or four hours on a particular Saturday morning in a testing room."
Some are calling this study a potential game-changer that may prompt schools to evaluate whether there is value in requiring standardized tests. Before now, data on outcomes for test-optional programs were almost always school-specific or largely anecdotal, says Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the advocacy group FairTest. a longtime critic of standardized testing.
"Now we have a study that covers 123,000 students at 33 institutions over eight years. And the conclusion: that test-optional admissions improves diversity [and] does not undermine academic quality," Schaeffer says. "Now more [colleges] and universities will have the data they need to support dropping ACT and SAT requirements."
So just how did the U.S. come to rely so much on standardized test scores? The SAT grew out of an Army IQ test that got the attention of presidents at two prestigious Ivy League schools. In the late 1930s the SAT became a scholarship test for all of the Ivies.
After World War II, Hiss says, most every school followed the Ivies with good intentions: to try to "open up access to colleges and universities, and to allow young people coming out of unfancy social backgrounds to be noticed."
A big test, the theory went, would allow more "diamond in the rough" students to be found and accepted to top schools, regardless of family connections or money.