The SAT as Predictor of Success in College

College Board Claims About the SAT's Predictive Value

The SAT as a predictor of high academic performance at the postsecondary level is a controversial subject. The College Board claims that SAT scores and high school grade point average are more closely linked to later performance in college than high school grades by themselves. The College Board has conducted research that supports this assertion at various points over the course of the SAT's history. A 2008 national validity study, for example, drew its conclusions from students at 726 universities across all regions of the United States. The study found respective correlations (adjusted for high school GPA) of 0.48, 0.47, and 0.51 for the SAT's Critical Reading, Math, and Writing sections with first-year college GPA. The correlation scale ranges from –1.0 to 1.0, with the latter constituting a "perfect positive linear relationship." "Small" correlations were defined at 0.1, "medium" correlations at 0.3, and "large" correlations at 0.5. By these definitions, all three sectional correlations were slightly below or slightly above the "large" level. The 2008 findings were largely consistent with a validity study published by the College Board in 2000.

2014 Study of SAT-Optional Admissions Policies

Independent researchers have questioned the College Board's obviously self-interested SAT advocacy. "Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American College and University Admissions" is a study published in 2014, for which the principal investigator was William Hiss, a former Dean of Admissions at Bates College. Researchers found statistically insignificant differences in the college grades (five one-hundredths of a GPA point) and graduation rates (six-tenths of one percent) of students who did not disclose their SAT status during the application process when compared to their peers who did submit SAT scores. Statistics were drawn from over 123,000 students at 33 post-secondary institutions of varying types. The study found that high school GPA was the most effective predictor of college grades, regardless of SAT performance.

University of California Study (1990s)

A large study of students in the University of California system during the late 1990s found that the SAT subject tests (also known as SAT II) and high school grade point average more reliably predicted grades for college freshmen than the SAT math and verbal tests taken by most students (SAT I). Published in 2001 by Saul Geiser with Roger Studley, "UC and the SAT: Predictive Validity and Differential Impact of the SAT I and SAT II at the University of California" examined data from over 77,000 students from 1996 through 1999. Over these four years, SAT I scores alone explained the lowest percentage of variance in college grades of any of the single factors considered (which also included high school GPA and SAT II).

Other Studies

M. Frank Norman and Jonathan Baron published "SATs, Achievement Tests, and High-School Class Rank as Predictors of College Performance" in a 1992 issue of the journal Educational and Psychological Measurement. The authors examined SAT scores, high school class rank, and average achievement test scores for approximately 3,800 students at the University of Pennsylvania, and found the SAT to be the least reliable forecaster of the college grades of these students. Fredrick Vars and William Bowen found that SAT score increases of 100 points were associated with college GPAs that were just one-tenth of a point higher ("Scholastic Aptitude Test Scores, Race, and Academic Performance in Selective Colleges and Universities," in The Black-White Test Score Gap). Of course, none of this research applies to the 2016 version of the SAT. Educators, parents, and students will simply have to await studies on this latest SAT in order to assess its value.

The SAT and Affluence

It is difficult to say for certain whether the SAT is a true assessment of student potential at the university level or merely a reflection of school district funding, access to resources, and family educational background. Statistical data can be used to argue either viewpoint. The correlation between high SAT scores and other types of academic performance is hard to dispute. Correlation, however, does not necessarily denote causation, and some researchers have asserted that family income is the strongest predictor of academic success in general and SAT scores in particular. As with many social issues, reality probably lies somewhere between these two extremes, but students are nonetheless advised to include the SAT in their college preparation plans. High SAT scores can only enhance a college application and give students more options for their education.