By far the best predictor of college success is a student’s high school grades. The authors of “Crossing the Finish Line” used a large, nationally representative set of student data to analyze what truly predicts success in college.
What they found was that a student’s high school grade-point average — made up of grades given by individual teachers across four years of high school — was far more predictive of eventual college graduation than his or her SAT/ACT score. And the student’s GPA was predictive regardless of high school attended, whether the student went to a “good” high school or a “bad” high school.
Why? Because while test scores measure a student’s ability on a narrow band of math and reading skills, GPA measures a diverse set of capacities, encompassing academic habits, content knowledge and non-cognitive skills that are exhibited day after day across four years of high school.
The clear message from “Crossing the Finish Line” is when we focus only on test scores, we miss the really important stuff.
One of the few good things to come from the pandemic is that it has led to some colleges to temporarily eliminate the SAT requirement for college admission. (Here in Michigan, it also is good news that we have eliminated standardized test requirements this year for all K-12 students.)
Paul Tough in a New York Times op-ed entitled “Go Ahead, California, Get Rid of the SAT” makes the case for doing away with college entrance exams in college admissions. He stated: “Janet Napolitano, the president of the University of California, recommending that the entire UC system go test optional for the next two years, followed by two years during which the university would become not just test optional but ‘test blind.’ In 2023 and 2024, Ms. Napolitano proposed, Berkeley and UCLA and every other UC school wouldn’t consider SAT or ACT scores at all in their admissions decisions.”
Tough writes: “The students who are most likely to benefit from any university’s decision to eliminate the use of standardized tests are those who have high GPAs in high school but comparatively low standardized test scores. These are, by definition, hard-working and diligent students, but they don’t perform as well on standardized tests. Let’s call them the strivers.
“A few years ago, researchers with the College Board, the organization that administers the SAT, analyzed students in that cohort and compared them with their mirror opposites: those with relatively high test scores and relatively low high school GPAs. Let’s call them the slackers: self-assured test takers who for one reason or another didn’t put as much effort into high school.
“The College Board’s researchers made two important discoveries about these groups. First, there were big demographic differences between them. The slackers with the elevated SAT scores were much more likely to be white, male and well-off. And the strivers with the elevated high school GPAs were much more likely to be female, black or Latina, and working-class or poor.
“The researchers’ second discovery was that students in the striver cohort, despite their significant financial disadvantages, actually did a bit better in college. They had slightly higher freshman grades and slightly better retention rates than the more affluent, higher-scoring slackers.”
All of this research suggests that our obsessive focus on test scores has led to non-affluent students (in cities, suburbs and rural areas) attending K-12 schools with curriculum and pedagogy that is both non-engaging and way too narrow. This focuses almost exclusively on what is on the test at the expense of essential skills like collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity and confidence. It also stunts extracurriculars, electives, the arts and even writing, all of which are so important to the quality education that we all want, if not demand, for our kids.
This is one of the most important equity challenges of our times: non-affluent children in K-12 schools designed to build too narrow skills. There is no path to an equal opportunity America without substantially increasing four-year degree attainment by children growing up in non-affluent households. A four-year degree is, quite simply, the most reliable path to a good-paying career.
Since Tough published his op-ed, Napolitano’s recommendations were approved by the governing board of the University of California system. This is a huge change to their college admission process.
It sure seems like it’s time for Michigan colleges — particularly our selective admission colleges — to move away from college entrance exams in their admission process.
Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.