There has been a long-held debate in higher education whether the skills measured on tests like the SAT and ACT are useful for predicting college success —or whether they are biased measures that perpetuate inequality. The rise of the test-optional movement over the past several years has served as a natural experiment putting these questions to the test. The New York Times recently published a piece titled The Misguided War on the SAT that supports the claim that the tests are useful for predicting important outcomes such as college GPA and graduation rates and do not, as feared, diminish student diversity.
An academic study released last summer by the group Opportunity Insights, covering the so-called Ivy Plus colleges (the eight in the Ivy League, along with Duke, M.I.T., Stanford and the University of Chicago), showed little relationship between high school grade point average and success in college. The researchers found a strong relationship between test scores and later success.
Likewise, a faculty committee at the University of California system — led by Dr. Henry Sánchez, a pathologist, and Eddie Comeaux, a professor of education — concluded in 2020 that test scores were better than high school grades at predicting student success in the system’s nine colleges, where more than 230,000 undergraduates are enrolled. The relative advantage of test scores has grown over time, the committee found.
“Test scores have vastly more predictive power than is commonly understood in the popular debate,” said John Friedman, an economics professor at Brown and one of the authors of the Ivy Plus admissions study.
Without test scores, Schmill, [the dean of admissions at M.I.T., one of the few schools to have reinstated its test requirement], explained, admissions officers were left with two unappealing options. They would have to guess which students were likely to do well at M.I.T. — and almost certainly guess wrong sometimes, rejecting qualified applicants while admitting weaker ones. Or M.I.T. would need to reject more students from less advantaged high schools and admit more from the private schools and advantaged public schools that have a strong record of producing well-qualified students.
“When you don’t have test scores, the students who suffer most are those with high grades at relatively unknown high schools, the kind that rarely send kids to the Ivy League,” Deming, a Harvard economist, said. “The SAT is their lifeline.”
The data demonstrate that standardized tests are effective at identifying ability. However, the National Test Prep Association (NTPA) likes to highlight that these tests also uncover an underdiscussed but equally important quality: students’ willingness to invest in their abilities. Every test prep professional can attest to the effect of hard work and dedication on test improvement. Conversely, students who don’t take studying for these tests seriously show only marginal improvement. However, the usefulness of standardized tests in measuring hard work and dedication becomes limited in a test-optional environment. When students are told that withholding their test scores won’t adversely affect their admissions chances, they make the logical decision to disengage when faced with challenges or setbacks while preparing for the tests. It is for this reason the NTPA encourages educators and admissions professionals to emphasize that standardized tests can instead reveal a trait of equal value to natural ability: one’s ability to achieve results through their hard work and determination.