The SAT isn’t the best predictor of academic success. Why do so many colleges still rely on it?

You probably know someone who has taken the SAT, if you haven’t taken it yourself.

You may also know someone who didn’t excel on the standardized test, even though he or she worked hard in high school and got good grades. Was that person stressed out over the possibility of the score ruining his or her chance of getting into a good college?

For many colleges and universities, SAT or ACT scores still factor into their decision to accept someone. Though 800 institutions now make it optional for applicants to provide test scores, there are 2,000 more four-year colleges that don’t.

Perhaps now they should reconsider.

On Tuesday, a first-of-its-kind study was released that examined the performance of students who did not submit test scores when they applied to college. Completed by William Hiss and Valerie Franks, it found no significant difference in grade point average or college graduation rate among those who didn’t submit scores versus those who did.

It turns out, if you get good grades in high school, you’re probably going to do well in college, despite having modest standardized test scores.

Hiss, a former dean of admissions at Bates College in Lewiston, has studied and observed this fact for years.

“This report is consistent with everything that I observed in 21 years as a dean or a vice president in an admissions office,” he said. “The human mind is so complex, so multi-faceted … that no standardized test is simply going to capture people’s capabilities, people’s promise for college.”

Hiss’ study, “Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American College and University Admissions,” examined 122,916 student and alumni records at 33 “test optional” public and private colleges and universities, in 22 states and territories across the country, over eight years.

It found only a 0.05 percent difference in GPA between test “submitters” and “nonsubmitters,” and a 0.6 percent difference in their college graduation rates. The differences are statistically insignificant.

Essentially, students do better in college than an admissions officer might think based on their SAT score.

“Even students who say they submitted tests and think the tests are accurate for them, even they say, ‘I have many young friends who I know have proved themselves to everybody except the testing agencies,’” Hiss said. “Every parent, every teacher, every college dean of admissions would say there are some youngsters who are simply not measured accurately by standardized testing.”

It’s not like there aren’t other ways for students to show their stuff. It turns out high school grades and grade point averages are an accurate predictor of success in college.

“Hard work and good grades in high school matter, and they matter a lot,” the report sums up. That may be because the work ethic that caused students to excel in high school matters just as much in college, too.

Hiss remembers taking standardized tests himself. “I just remember long hours with a pencil and frantically doing it as fast as I could,” he said. “They’re not an intelligence test. They’re a speed-processing test. I have nothing against speed processing, but that’s not what you do in college.”

The SAT, which evolved out of a test the Army used to recruit for intelligence during World War I, was first used by a college in 1934. That college was Harvard University, which was starting a new scholarship program and wanted to find students who did not come from the boarding schools that regularly fed the university its students. So it used the SAT, assuming it would distinguish promising applicants regardless of the quality of their schooling.

What started as a selective use of the SAT became widespread. While it began as a way to broaden diversity, it may have done just the opposite. That’s because those who opt not to submit test scores today are more likely to be minorities, the first in the family to attend college, women, and those from families with low incomes. They may be more likely to apply to college in the first place if SAT scores aren’t required.

If colleges want to increase their applicant pool, attract a more diverse group of students and really open the door to those students who otherwise might not apply, they should examine their admissions policies and consider going “test optional.”

As the study states, “Without the most accurate and subtle understanding of students’ capabilities, we will waste both their promise and our country’s.”

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.