Do ACT and SAT scores really matter? New study says they shouldn’t

BY Sarah Sheffer  February 18, 2014 at 4:09 PM EDT
standardized test

Remember fretting about your ACT and SAT scores? A new study reveals that it really is only a number and not a reliable predictor for college success.

Teens across the U.S. are standing by their mailboxes, waiting anxiously for the envelopes that will seal their academic fate. It’s college admissions season and for many students a lot hinges on how well they performed in standardized testing.

But how much should exams like the SAT and ACT really matter?

A study published Tuesday that probed the success of “test-optional” admissions policies in 33 public and private universities calls into question the need for such testing.

Former Dean of Admissions for Bates College William Hiss led the study which tracked the grades and graduation rates of students who submitted their test results against those who did not over several years.

Hiss’ data showed that there was a negligible difference in college performance between the two groups. Only .05 percent of a GPA point set “submitters” and “non-submitters” apart, and the difference in their graduation rates was just .6 percent.

There are about 850 test-optional colleges in the U.S., and the trend is growing slowly.

What should college admissions officers look for instead? Hiss says GPA matters the most.

“The evidence of the study clearly shows that high school GPA matters. Four-year, long-term evidence of self-discipline, intellectual curiosity and hard work; that’s what matters the most. After that, I would say evidence that someone has interests that they have brought to a higher level, from a soccer goalie to a debater to a servant in a community to a linguist. We need to see evidence that the student can bring something to a high level of skill,” Hiss said.

According to the data, if high school grades are not high, good testing does not promise college success. Students with good grades and modest testing did better in college than students with higher testing and lower high school grades.

“The human mind is simply so complex and so multifaceted and fluid, that trying to find a single measurement tool that will be reliable across the enormous populations of American students is simply a trip up a blind alley. I would never say the SATs and ACTs have no predictive value for anybody; they have predictive value for some people. We just don’t find them reliable cross populations,” says Hiss.

But the dreaded test was born of good intentions.

The SAT started in the 1930s as a scholarship test for Ivy League schools. Based off of an Army IQ test, it was meant to help those who came from more humble backgrounds to be noticed by prestigious schools. Many other universities followed suit.

But standardized testing may now be hurting rather than helping disenfranchised students.

The study found that non-submitting students were more likely to be minorities, women, students with Learning Differences, Pell Grant recipients and first-generation college-goers.

According to Hiss’ data, the test-optional policy could even help to level the playing field.

“We need thousands of students going through higher ed. Optional testing is one of the ways that that could happen. Optional testing is a potential route to getting many more students through higher education who normally would not be admitted or would not apply in first place,” Hiss said.

The study comes at a time of renewed debate about college admissions, after President Barack Obama pledged in January to get more low income students into higher education.