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Connection between test scores, success in college is tenuous

Even though some colleges have now made the submission of standardized test scores optional, the vast majority have not. Therefore, it certainly looks like standardized test scores will continue to be a required part of the college application process, at least in the near future.

As a longtime university educator, I am not a fan of standardized tests. In fact, I would be in favor of according test scores a more diminished role in the college application process. Let me explain why I feel this way.

The two standardized tests that loom large in the lives of college-bound high school students are the SAT and the ACT. Let’s consider the SAT first. The SAT now consists of three sections that are designed to test a student’s knowledge in critical reading, mathematics and writing. The score in each section ranges from a low of 200 to a high of 800 and hence the maximum possible score is 2,400. Are SAT scores a useful predictor of success in college as measured by, for instance, the freshman grade point average?

Early research overstated the SAT’s ability to predict the freshman GPA. This is because these early models neglected to account for other variables that also predict college performance. One such variable is the demographic composition of a student’s high school. The key point to note is that the SAT appears to serve as a good proxy for certain student background variables and hence, when these variables are excluded from the model, the SAT’s ability to predict the freshman GPA is inflated.

Recent research by Jesse Rothstein and others shows that if one wishes to utilize the predictive power of student background variables, then these variables can provide much of the information contained in the SAT score. In contrast, if one does not wish to use these background variables, then the SAT’s contribution is smaller than the research on the validity of the SAT suggests. Either way, these findings clearly call for assigning less importance to the SAT score in college admissions.

What about the ACT? This test covers English, mathematics, reading and science. Scores in each of these four areas range from 1 to 36 and the all-important composite score, also ranging from 1 to 36, is provided to colleges for their use in admissions decisions. Evidence shows that nearly all colleges that use the ACT use solely the composite score in the admissions process. This means that they implicitly give equal weight to each of the four area tests. How useful is this course of action in predicting success in college?

Interesting new research by Eric Bettinger, Brent Evans and Devin Pope shows that the English and mathematics scores are significantly more correlated with college success than are the reading and science scores. What this means is that after one controls for the English and mathematics scores, the reading and the science scores have virtually no ability to predict college outcomes. The clear implication of this research is that if the ACT is to be used in college admissions, then it ought not to be used in the way it currently is.

Instead, college admissions officers ought to use an English-mathematics composite score rather than the ACT composite score in selecting candidates for admission. Such a course of action is likely to reduce “undermatching” and thereby improve graduation rates and reduce dropout rates in the more selective colleges.

In sum, the connection between standardized test scores and success in college is tenuous. Hence, the use of the SAT and the ACT to select freshman classes in college ought to be seriously re-examined.

My considered opinion is that the two related qualities that are most likely to determine academic success in college and in graduate school are discipline and a willingness to persevere in the face of odds. I am unaware of any standardized test that credibly measures either of these two attributes.

Amitrajeet A. Batabyal is the Arthur J. Gosnell professor of economics at the Rochester Institute of Technology, but these views are his own.