The SAT-ACT controversy persists

Despite overwhelming evidence that grades and courses taken possess far greater predictive value than scores on the SAT and ACT, their use continues (“Students May Be Able to Take SAT, ACT at Home Due to Coronavirus,” The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 16). I’m referring now to the 20-year landmark study conducted by Bates College.

In 2005, Bates found virtually no difference in four-year grades and on-time graduation rates between 7,000 submitters and non-submitters. Since then, more than 1,000 colleges and universities that have followed the same test-optional policy have reported similar outcomes.

It’s hard to understand why the SAT and ACT continue to be used in light of this overwhelming evidence.  But tradition dies hard in academe, which is why the debate will go on.  The only beneficiaries are the companies that design the tests.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

2 Replies to “The SAT-ACT controversy persists”

  1. Not familiar with the Bates study — it apparently compared college success rates for admitted/enrolled applicants who submitted SAT/ACT scores with college success rates for admitted/enrolled applicants who did not submit SAT/ACT scores and found little/no difference in the college success rates.

    But, seems that the main use of SAT/ACT scores for college admissions officials is to distinguish between applicants with comparable GPAs/class rank — that is, Applicant A and Applicant B each have 3.8 GPA and rank at 98th percentile in their graduating class. Which one should the college accept? Seems reasonable for the college to want to know how A and B did on the SAT/ACT — if one had a much higher score than the other, then the higher-scoring applicant should be accepted.

    This analysis is particularly relevant where A and B attended high schools that were very different re academic competitiveness. Seems like a 3.8 GPA and graduating 4th in a class of 200 at a very competitive suburban high school should be much more impressive academically than a 3.8 GPA and graduating 4th in a class of 200 at a rural high school where many students drop out and few go on to college. The SAT/ACT scores give the college a better shot at evaluating the relative academic ability of A and B in such a situation.

    Drawing from personal although admittedly anecdotal experience (my own and my kids’), there were students who graduated at/near the top of their classes at very non-competitive high schools (rural or inner-city) and who nevertheless struggled to make it through their freshman year at Cornell and UVA. They arrived at the academically very competitive colleges with academic skills (and perhaps abilities) that were far below average for the freshman class. The colleges admitted these students notwithstanding relatively low SAT/ACT scores in order to satisfy geographic distribution requirements and/or affirmative action requirements.

    Using the obvious athletic analysis — compare two high school basketball players who each averaged 20 points/game his senior year, one playing in a very competitive inner-city league where starting players averaged 6’3″ and many won basketball scholarships and the other playing in a minimally competitive private school suburban league where starting players averaged 5’9″ and few, if any, won basketball scholarships. No college coach in his right mind would look only at the 20 points/game stat and assume the two players had an equal chance of starting on a Division 1 college team.


  2. Labor Lawyer: The Bates study found that the SAT had little predictive value on overall four-year performance. More than 1,000 other schools have reported similar results. The only thing that the SAT possibly predicted was the first year performance. After that, there was nothing of value. For elite schools, a lottery probably should be used because almost all who apply are equally able. Trying to compare them is a fool’s errand.


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