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.

A small validity study was undertaken in 2014-2015 by Shaw and colleagues and involved 2,050 students across 15 four-year colleges and universities. This study used a pilot form of the redesigned SAT, which would become available to all students in 2016. Based on the reported data, the redesigned SAT was as predictive of college success as previous versions of the SAT. Researchers also reported that SAT scores improved the ability to predict college success above high school GPA alone, and there was a strong positive correlation between scores on the redesigned SAT and grades in related college course domains.

In 2019, the College Board published the first large-scale study to examine the validity of the SAT since the exam’s redesign in 2016. The study, led by P.A. Westrick, involved over 223,000 students across 171 four-year colleges and universities. Based on the available data, the researchers drew the following conclusions:

  • SAT scores were strongly predictive of college performance—students with higher SAT scores were more likely to have higher grades in college.

  • SAT scores were predictive of student retention to their second year of college—students with higher SAT scores were more likely to return for their sophomore year of college than students with lower SAT scores.

  • While SAT scores and high school GPA both related to academic performance during college, they each tended to measure slightly different aspects of academic preparation. Using SAT scores with high school GPA was the most powerful predictor of future academic performance. On average, SAT scores added 15% more predictive power above high school grades alone when attempting to understand how students will perform in college. Within narrow high school GPAs, SAT scores further helped predict a student’s future success in college.

The researchers also suggested that SAT scores could be used to identify students in need of additional academic support before they started college, thus helping to position these students for success by connecting them with academic resources (e.g., tutors, learning centers, etc.).

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 and later)

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).

In October 2015, Saul Geiser published a study entitled, "The Growing Correlation Between Race and SAT Scores: New Findings from California." The study was based on data from a population of California residents who applied to the University of California system from 1994 to 2011, totaling just over 1.1 million students. The UC data indicated that socioeconomic background factors such as family income, parental education, and race/ethnicity accounted for a large portion of the variance between students' SAT scores. In fact, socioeconomic factors were found to account for 1/3, or roughly 33%, of the variance between students’ SAT scores. While these findings are considered preliminary and additional research is needed to determine whether the results of this study are indicative of a broader trend, other researchers have noted the importance of socioeconomic factors in explaining and predicting SAT scores.

Brenda Hannon (2015) published a study in the Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences reporting that parental education exerted a unique effect on SAT scores separate from high school GPA. A 2015 study by Park and Becks published in The Review of Higher Education reported that parental education was associated with SAT preparation among high school students. Those high school students who had a parent with a college degree were more likely to participate in high school prep courses or private prep courses to prepare for the SAT, and those students who had a parent with a graduate or advanced college degree were more likely to take a private prep course or receive private tutoring.

There are many challenges involved in attempting to measure the effect of socioeconomic factors on students' SAT scores, including how various terms are defined, what instruments are used to measure certain aspects of socioeconomic status, as well as the contributions of other factors that are either less clearly understood or have yet to be identified. Geographical and regional differences must be taken into account, in addition to student and family familiarity with the English language, student and family familiarity with standardized testing, how long a student and/or their family has lived in the United States, the affluence of a given school district, and individual student personality factors such as test anxiety and internal motivation, to name but a few important areas that warrant thorough future consideration.

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).

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. While research will continue to be conducted, the current academic environment in the United States clearly favors taking the SAT, and the most selective colleges and universities continue to report the highest SAT scores among those students that were offered admittance. It may be more helpful for high school students to look at the SAT as a test to learn, practice, and eventually master as part of the overall college application process rather than as a predictor of their ultimate success in the college environment.

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