College & Workforce Readiness

Barely Half of Colleges Validate Use of SAT, ACT as Success Predictors

By Catherine Gewertz — June 15, 2016 3 min read
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Most colleges and universities rely to some degree on ACT and SAT scores in their admissions processes, but only half do research to establish that those scores are good predictors of success in college, a new study finds.

Released Wednesday, the study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling raises a question that goes to the heart of the debate about the transition from high school to college: When colleges and universities place significant weight on admissions test scores, is that practice based on solid research?

NACAC surveyed about 400 of its member colleges and found that 78 percent require students to submit SAT or ACT scores, but only 51 percent conduct what are known as “predictive validity” studies, which follow students as they progress through college. By tracking student behavior, such studies can show whether college-admission scores do a good job of predicting whether students will earn good grades and stay in school.

Research Urged to Support Role, Weight of Test Scores in Admissions

The new report says that conducting predictive validity studies of college admissions tests is more important now than ever because “recent changes in the content of the SAT, increased use of the SAT and ACT as high school assessment instruments, and the changing demographics of the student population who take the tests, could all affect the predictive validity of test scores.”

NACAC undertook the survey as part of its ongoing effort to help its member institutions better understand the appropriate weight of various factors during the admissions process. A NACAC commission that looked into the use of standardized tests in admissions recommended in 2008 that institutions that use admissions tests conduct their own predictive validity studies.

Unsurprisingly, money is one of the big things that keeps colleges and universities from doing their own predictive validity studies. But NACAC’s report includes an examination of 11 colleges that did conduct the studies, and all of those schools found that high school grades predict college success better than scores from admissions tests.

“Overall, it is clear that high school grades are by far the most significant predictor of college academic achievement. In addition, for all the schools interviewed for this project who examined the subject, standardized testing made a significant contribution to the ability to predict college academic performance.”

How Should Grades, Test Scores, Shape College Admissions?

A number of other studies have reached the same conclusion, including this one that examined outcomes at test-optional colleges. Others, such as this one, by University of Minnesota researchers, have found that admissions tests and grades predict college performance about equally.

One study on the ACT’s predictive power found that a student’s high school grades and ACT scores do a good job forecasting his or her first-year college grades, but that it’s first-year performance—not ACT scores—that predict a student’s likelihood of staying in college in successive years. Another, done by ACT, found that students who scored at the organization’s “college readiness benchmarks” were more likely to enroll in college after high school graduation, earn good grades, stay in college, and earn degrees.

The College Board has long argued that SAT scores, combined with high school grades, are the best predictors of college performance. It redesigned the SAT and gave that test for the first time in 2016, so it’s too early to track the college performance of students who take it. But the College Board asked 15 four-year colleges to administer the pilot version of the new SAT to freshmen in the fall of 2014, and then report on their performance the following June.

It concluded that scores on the new SAT are positively related to students’ first-year college performance, and are slightly better than students’ high school GPAs at predicting success in first-year college courses. Beginning with students who enter college in the fall of 2017, the College Board will conduct additional research to track students who took the new SAT through college to determine the relationship between those test scores and students’ course grades, persistence in college, and college completion, a company spokesman said.

Image: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.