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Report Questions Value of Entrance Exams in Predicting College Success

A new study finds "no significant differences" between the college grades and completion rates of students who submit ACT or SAT scores with their college applications and those who do not. A more reliable predictor of academic success, the research concludes, is students' high school grades.

The report analyzed data for 123,000 students who enrolled in 33 colleges that do not require applicants to submit test scores from college-entrance exams. It features a diverse swath of public and private four-year institutions of varying sizes— including Bates College and Washington State University—representing a 5 percent sample of those higher education institutions with optional testing policies. 

The fundamental question posed was" "Are college admission decisions reliable for students who are admitted without SAT or ACT scores?"

The answer? Yes.

The report, published Feb. 18 on the National Association for College Admission Counseling website, was coauthored by William Hiss—a professor and former dean of admissions at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine—and Valerie Franks, a former assistant dean of admissions at Bates.

About 30 percent of students were admitted without providing test scores and the study found no significant difference in either cumulative Grade Point Average or graduation rates between submitters and non-submitters. Those who did not submit scores had GPAs that were .05 lower than submitters (2.83 vs. 2.88) and the difference in graduation rates was .6 percent.

"By any standard, these are trivial differences," the report says.

Grades were a better predictor of student performance. Students with strong high school GPAs generally perform well in college, despite modest or low testing on the ACT or SAT. Students who had weak GPAs in high school, even with markedly stronger testing performance, had lower college GPAs and graduate at lower rates, the report finds.

"All students need to hear the sustained, consistent message from their high schools and from colleges and universities that the importance of a successful high school record cannot be overestimated," the study says.

It also notes that students who choose not to submit test scores are more likely to be the first in their families to go to college, as well as women, minorities, recipients of need-based financial aid, and students with learning disabilities.

Barriers to Admission

In a phone interview, Hiss said that there are increasing numbers of students from these groups who need to get through college, and that standardized testing can create a barrier.

"Our report is not a Jihad on the ACT and SAT," said Hiss. "It's a statement that high school matters a lot. We are artificially truncating the pool of young people who would succeed in college if colleges would let them in and give them a chance."

David Hawkins, the director of public policy and research for NACAC, said in an email that the new report is in keeping with the 2008 recommendations of the NACAC Commission on the Use of Standardized Testing in Undergraduate Admission. It encouraged institutions to conduct research on standardized admission test scores to determine what, if any, benefit the institution derives in predicting student success at the institution. Hawkins served on the advisory committee for the Hiss study.

The new study found the optional testing policies will work successfully at broadly different kinds of institutions.

Optional-testing policies have been the focus of debate for years. Now there are about 850 four-year colleges and universities (out of 2,800) that do not use SAT or ACT scores for admitting a substantial number of students for bachelor-degree programs, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, argues that high school GPA and SAT scores in combination are the best predictors of college success.

"The SAT is among the most rigorously researched and designed tests in the world and dozens of internal and external studies show that the SAT is a valid predictor of college success for all students," said Cyndie Schmeiser, chief of assessment of the College Board, in a statement. "It's important to note that test-optional schools are our members and our partners. We respect the decisions they make about their admissions processes and we will continue to listen to our members, evolve our programs, and work to expand access to opportunity for all students."

Wayne Camera, a senior vice president of research at ACT Inc., said that it's better for admissions officers to have more sources of reliable information when making decisions about students rather than less. While there are legitimate reasons for colleges to adopt test-optional policies, he maintains the study ignores the fact that admissions officers can and do ignore or deemphasize information when it is inconsistent with the overall student record.

"We believe that colleges and admissions decisions are best served when all students are playing on a level playing field and similar information is available," he said.

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