High school grades are a better predictor of college success than SAT, ACT, study says

February 21, 2014

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Credit: iStockphoto.com

Credit: iStockphoto.com

As California and other states work to define what “college and career readiness” means, a new study finds that a more reliable predictor of whether a student does well in college is his or her high school grades, rather than ACT or SAT scores.

“One of the core messages of this study is that high school grades matter, and they matter a lot,” said principal investigator William C. Hiss, a professor and former dean of admissions at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

The study analyzed student and alumni records from 123,000 students in 33 colleges where SAT or ACT scores are optional for admission.

The results found that a student’s performance in college closely mirrored their performance in high school: Students with strong grade point averages in high school maintained similar GPAs in college, regardless of how well or poorly they scored on college entrance exams. Likewise, students with lower GPAs – even those with high SAT or ACT scores – had lower GPAs in college and graduated at lower rates.

“That surprised me,” Hiss said. “I did not expect to see the correlation was that close.”

The study, published Feb. 18 on the website of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, adds new fuel to debates over the role of entrance exams in college admissions. Students in the study who did not submit SAT or ACT scores were more likely to be minorities, the first in their family to attend college, come from low-income families, and have learning disabilities, the study said. Standardized admissions tests can create a barrier to college for many students, Hiss said.

“For economic growth and social stability, America will need to find successful paths to higher education for hundreds of thousands of additional first-generation-to-college, minority, immigrant, rural and (learning disabled) students,” Hiss wrote in a fact sheet accompanying the study. “This study provides the research support for optional testing as at least one route by which that can happen.”

The report comes as California grapples with the best way to measure how well schools are preparing students to succeed in college and careers. A 2012 state law, SB 1458, requires the state to incorporate measures of career and college readiness into a high school’s Academic Performance Index, the measure used statewide to gauge a school’s academic effectiveness.

The Public Schools Accountability Act Advisory Committee, which is tasked with making recommendations to the State Board of Education on meeting the requirements of the law, met on Thursday in Sacramento to continue its deliberations on how best to revise the high school API.  The California Department of Education has contracted with the Educational Policy Improvement Center (EPIC), founded by David Conley, a University of Oregon professor who has studied college and career readiness extensively, to provide a series of reports to help guide their recommendations.   The advisory committee met in Sacramento on Wednesday this week to continue its work on integrating college and career measures into the  Academic Performance Index, and to decide on what reports to commission from the Oregon-based center.

The first of the EPIC reports are expected to be delivered in April. The reports will cover the role college entrance exams and participation in Advanced Placement and the International Baccalaureate program play in helping prepare students for success after high school. At its Thursaday meeting, the committee approved additional reports, including one on career technical education and career readiness, that will be presented at future meetings. The California Department of Education has budgeted $50,000 for the contract with the policy center.

Michelle Maitre covers career and college readiness. Contact her and follow her on Twitter @michelle_maitre. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.

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