SAT Test Passes As Predictor of College Success
For some years now, many elite American colleges have been downgrading the role of standardized tests like the SAT in deciding which applicants are admitted, or have even discarded their use altogether. While some institutions justify this move primarily as a way to enroll a more diverse group of students, an increasing number claim that the SAT is a poor predictor of academic success in college, especially compared with high school grade-point averages.
Are they correct? To get an answer, we need to first decide on a good measure of “academic success.” Given inconsistent grading standards for college courses, the most easily comparable metric is the graduation rate. Students’ families and society both want college entrants to graduate, and we all know that having a college degree translates into higher income. Further, graduation rates among students and institutions vary much more widely than do college grades, making them a clearer indicator of how students are faring.
So, here is the question: do SATs predict graduation rates more accurately than high school grade-point averages? The short answer is: yes.
In the 1990s, several SUNY campuses chose to raise their admissions standards by requiring higher SAT scores, while others opted to keep them unchanged. With respect to high school grades, all SUNY campuses consider applicants’ grade-point averages in decisions, but among the total pool of applicants across the state system, those averages have remained fairly consistent over time.
Thus, by comparing graduation rates at SUNY campuses that raised the SAT admissions bar with those that didn’t, we have a controlled experiment of sorts that can fairly conclusively tell us whether SAT scores were accurate predictors of whether a student would get a degree.
1. Stony Brook and Albany, both research universities: over four years, at Stony Brook the average entering freshman SAT score went up 7.9%, to 1164, and the graduation rate rose by 10%; meanwhile, Albany’s average freshman SAT score increased by only 1.3% and its graduation rate fell by 2.7%, to 64%.
2. Brockport and Oswego, two urban colleges with about 8,000 students each: Brockport’s average freshman SAT score rose 5.7% to 1080, and its graduation rate increased by 18.7% to 58.5%. At the same time, Oswego’s freshman SAT average rose by only 3% and its graduation rate fell by 1.9%, to 52.6%.
3. Oneonta and Plattsburgh, two small liberal arts colleges with 5,000 students each: Oneonta’s freshman SAT score increased by 6.2%, to 1069, and its graduation rate rose 25.3%, to 58.9%. Plattsburgh’s average freshman SAT score increased by 1.3% and its graduation rate fell sharply, by 6.3%, to 55.1%.
Conclusion: Among a group of SUNY campuses with very different missions and admissions standards, and at which the high school grade-point averages of enrolling freshmen improved by the same modest amount (about 2% to 4%), only those campuses whose incoming students’ SAT scores improved substantially saw gains in graduation rates.
Demeaning the SAT has become fashionable at campuses across the country. But college administrators who really seek to understand the value of the test based on good empirical evidence would do well to learn from the varied experiences of New York’s state university campuses.
~Peter D. Salins, professor of political science at SUNY-Stony Brook, in the NY Times