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Questioning the Admissions Assumptions

June 19, 2007

A major study released Monday by the University of California suggests that high school grades may be good at predicting not only first-year college performance, as commonly believed, but performance throughout four undergraduate years. The same study suggests that the SAT adds little predictive value to admissions decisions and is hindered by a high link between SAT scores and socioeconomic status -- a link not present for high school grades.

And further, the study finds that all of the information admissions officers currently have is of limited value, and accounts for only 30 percent of the grade variance in colleges -- leaving 70 percent of the variance unexplained.

Taken together, the study questions many assumptions widely held in admissions. And while the last year has seen numerous studies on the impact of standardized testing in admissions (with a range of conclusions), the new study is from Saul Geiser and Maria Veronica Santelices through the University of California at Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education, and is based on data from all University of California campuses. Past studies by the center have been influential in the evolving debate over admissions standards -- and anything involving the University of California tends to get attention, given the system's influence and top campuses.

The new study is an update of a 2003 report that looked at the validity of various admissions criteria on first-year performance at the university, based on a sampling of 80,000 students. Most admissions testing is based on predictive value in the first year of college, so that was a logical starting point, the researchers reasoned. But the new study goes further -- and follows the students through four years of grades.

The primary finding was that high school grades are consistently the strongest predictor of any factor of success through four years in college. And contrary to what researchers expected to find, the predictive value of high school grades goes up as students progress through college, even though more time has passed since high school.

Significantly, the predictive value of high school grades was equally strong across different cohorts of students by socioeconomic status, but fields of study, and by university campus. The importance of that finding is that it stands in contrast to the SAT, for which the California researchers -- like many others -- found a strong correlation between high scores and socioeconomic status. So the researchers found that grades not only are the best tool to predict success, but don't carry the problem of seeming to favor the wealthy and some racial groups over others.

Geiser, one of the two authors of the study, noted in an interview that defenders of standardized testing always like to say that it is needed to compensate for the fact that high schools have widely varying quality. But what the researchers found is that there isn't such a problem -- even in a state as large and diverse as California. "How you perform in college prep biology is a justifiable and appropriate way" to decide whom to admit, Geiser said.

While Geiser said that the results clearly point to the need to "emphasize" grades and to "de-emphasize" the SAT (a direction in which the University of California has moved), he stopped short of saying that the findings suggest that universities should abandon the SAT. He said he did not want to be drawn into that debate.

Rather, he said he hoped people would consider the meaning of the finding that only 30 percent of the grade variance in college could be explained by the factors admissions officers examine. If so much of the grade variance can't be explained, Geiser said, that raises a tough question: "Why are we emphasizing prediction [of college success] as the central value in admissions if we do it so poorly?"

If the whole process has such a low rate of success, Geiser said, more emphasis should be place on "criteria that have face validity instead of predictive validity." So if a student earns A's in college preparatory courses, that says something about student knowledge, and so should count for plenty. In the testing arena, he said such a philosophy might lead to reliance on the SAT II tests of subject matter (once called "achievement tests") rather than tests such as the SAT I that grew out of what were once called aptitude tests.

A spokeswoman for the College Board said that the research was "highly technical and complex" and that no one there could comment on it Monday.

Bob Schaeffer, a leading critic of the SAT and public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said he viewed the study as an important one. "For too long, the college admissions testing debate has been skewed by a widespread myth that standardized exams are a better predictor of undergraduate performance than are high school grades" when that's not the case, he said.

The study confirms why more colleges are dropping testing requirement, in favor of admissions decisions based on grades, activities, community service and other factors, he said. Schaeffer added that these colleges "understand that test scores do not measure merit."

 

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