If you want to know whether a student is likely to complete college, his high school grades often turn out to be a better bet than his college admissions tests like the ACT—and researchers and teachers alike have long wondered why.
Now a study in the American Educational Research Journal suggests one possibility: Grades might provide insight into not just academics, but a student’s perseverance and self-control.
College admissions officers already give more weight to high school grades than college placement tests, and a Chicago study found that as early as 9th grade, students’ grades predicted their odds of going to college—though they could not determine why.
Researchers led by Brian Galla, an assistant professor of psychology in education at the University of Pittsburgh, tracked data from more than 47,300 students who applied for college using an electronic common application in the 2009-10 school year. They looked at whether students had graduated with a degree within four years and compared the students’ high school grades and scores on the ACT, SAT, or both.
A little more than 39 percent of all students completed a degree in four years, but after controlling for students’ demographic characteristics (such as whether their parents had earned degrees), the researchers found that earning better grades in high school was associated with a higher likelihood of graduating college than performing better on college admissions tests.
Then the researchers looked at a separate group of about 1,600 students of the Class of 2013 from four public schools. Over their senior year, these students did computer-based tests of both self-regulation and cognitive ability, and the researchers compared the results from these measures to the students’ grades, college admissions test scores, and ultimately college graduation rates.
The Class of 2013 students’ test scores were closely tied to their cognitive ability. But their grades were more strongly associated with measures of self-control and perseverance, such as their teachers’ ratings of the students’ self-control and how much they agreed with statements like, “I pay attention and resist distractions in class,” or “I can remain calm even when criticized or otherwise provoked.”
“In particular, the grades assigned to students by their high school teachers reveal quite a bit about their capacity to resist momentary temptations, regulate emotions, and sustain effort across days, months, and years in pursuit of important goals,” said the researchers.
The findings make sense; several prior studies have found students who get good grades also tend to be the ones who report coming to class more consistently, keeping track of their books and homework, and dedicating more time to studying than screen time. Galla’s study may also help explain why prior research also found that taking more challenging classes was more important than having a higher grade point average when it came to getting into competitive universities—the more challenging the course, the more students have to focus and perservere to get through it.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.