Test-optional policies have become common in higher education. Nearly 2,000 colleges and universities didn’t require SAT or ACT scores for admission this academic year. While it was a rational choice during the pandemic, institutions are slowly moving toward making it the new status quo.
The move has left admissions teams to rely solely on GPA as a quantitative metric to aid their decision-making. Harvard-based research and policy institute Opportunity Insights has found that this may be a step in the wrong direction.
After studying first-year Ivy-Plus students’ admissions records and grades between 2017 and 2022, Opportunity Insights found that student’s test scores are a far more significant predictor of collegiate success than their high school GPA. It presented three different data-driven arguments defending its stance.
First, the research institute found a stronger correlation between students with higher standardized tests achieving a high college GPA than peers with lower scores. For example, keeping grades as a constant, high school students with a perfect SAT or ACT score achieved a first-year college GPA .43 points higher than students who scored on the 75th percentile.
Conversely, high school GPA was not a dependable predictor for students’ collegiate academic success. Students who achieved a 4.0 GPA in high school GPA and those who achieved a 3.2 shared less than a 0.1-point difference in their GPAs in college.
These findings shed further light on grade inflation that’s been plaguing higher ed for the past decade, according to ACT, and how this phenomenon coincides with lower academic achievement, Forbes reports. Poorer K12 academic achievement has deep ramifications on the college level as well: Students’ standardized test scores recently hit a 30-year low.
“Higher SAT/ACT scores are associated with higher college GPAs but higher high school GPAs are not,” the report read.
Even among students with differing socioeconomic backgrounds, if they shared similar standardized test scores, they did not find sufficient evidence to conclude their first-year college GPAs would look any different.
Despite results, “deeper inequities” linger
Regardless of their socioeconomic background, students who share similar test scores will likely share similar first-year college success at highly selective colleges, and their test scores are a better indicator of that than their high school GPA, according to the findings.
However, Opportunity Insights concedes that disparities still exist in getting high school students from less advantaged backgrounds to perform well on the SAT/ACT. The evidence stacked against standardized testing that suggests students’ testing performance is predicated on societal racial and socio inequities is significant.
“Admissions offices increasingly recognize that test requirements, given their negative disparate impact on Black and Latinx applicants, are ‘race-conscious’ factors, which can create unfair barriers to access higher education,” said Harry Feder, executive director at FairTest, a nationally prominent nonprofit advocating for the end of mandated testing for college admissions.
Opportunity Insights is not unaware of these possible inequities. It acknowledged the environmental conditions that classify learners from “less advantaged backgrounds” that create academic disparities. One of those disparities, family income, was aptly described in one of its reports last year, suggesting the likelihood of students’ acceptance to Ivy Plus institutions increases with their wealth. Other disparities they mentioned were school quality and neighborhood exposure.
“While these findings do not suggest how to address these deeper inequities, they do suggest that test scores may be helpful for highly selective colleges to create more upward mobility by prioritizing admissions for academically prepared students from a broader range of backgrounds,” the report reads.