by: Nevada Ryan
A recent New York Times article, relying on data published last summer by Harvard’s Opportunity Insights research institute, made several claims that should permanently affect the way admissions officers and the public alike view standardized tests. As the prevalence of test optional schools continues to complicate the admissions process, and as disagreements over the merits of meritocracy rage on, it’s important we grapple with the latest facts on standardized tests and what they reveal.
One important claim of the article deals with the ability of standardized test scores to predict a student’s college grades. Contrary to the prevailing sentiment against standardized tests, which claims high school GPAs are better predictors of college grades and graduation rates, the Opportunity Insights research indicates that standardized test scores are actually the superior metric:
This corroborates one of the long-held claims of proponents of standardized tests, which is that given the vast differences in curriculum and rigor across our nation’s high schools, grades are unreliable: an A at one school may not necessarily mean an A at another school, and so on. A sister argument cites the issue of grade inflation, and emphasizes how incorporating a standardized metric (such as an SAT or ACT score) into admissions decisions is necessary to offset the effects of relying on potentially inflated grades. In either case, the reasoning is that grades alone are inadequate. As M.I.T.’s admissions dean Stuart Schmill points out, “Just getting straight A’s is not enough information for us to know whether the students are going to succeed or not.” And John Friedman, economics professor at Brown and one of the authors of the Opportunity Insights study, states that “Test scores have vastly more predictive power than is commonly understood in the popular debate.”
Another claim made in the article also confounds a typical criticism of standardized tests, which is that they are simply proxies for income, wealth, or race. “Within every racial group,” cites the article, “students with higher scores do better in college. The same is true among poor students and among richer students”:
And yet a third assertion from the article is that test scores, rather than high school GPAs, are stronger predictors of “post-college success,” defined in the graphs below as “attending an elite graduate school” and “working at a prestigious firm”:
On this last note, regarding what predicts post-college success, the authors of the Opportunity Insights report also looked at categories other than grades and test scores, but that are still known to “give children from high-income families an admissions advantage”. The following categories are positively correlated with admission to Ivy-Plus schools: legacy status, athlete status, and non-academic credentials (such as extracurricular activities and leadership traits, and which “tend to be stronger for students applying from private high schools that have affluent student bodies”). The authors found, surprisingly, that such advantages are “uncorrelated or negatively correlated with post-college outcomes”:
We find that recruited athletes, students with higher non-academic ratings, and legacy students have equivalent or lower chances of reaching the upper tail of the income distribution, attending an elite graduate school, or working at a prestigious firm than comparable Ivy-Plus applicants once we adjust for the fact that they are admitted to better colleges. By contrast, academic ratings and SAT/ACT scores are highly predictive of post-college outcomes.
In other words, and counterintuitive as it may be, while affluence may significantly help a student get admitted to an Ivy-Plus institution, unless strong test scores are also a factor in that student’s matriculation, the advantage provided by affluence appears to evaporate after college.
In closing, though maligned in recent years, and though (rightfully) disliked by students who need to prepare for them, standardized tests, in turns out, do a reliable job of revealing one thing they have always claimed to reveal—how well a student will perform in college. This doesn’t mean test scores are the only features of a college application that matter. But it does mean that, as standardized tests regain legitimacy among admissions officers, college-bound students should start looking at these tests as an enduring—rather than optional—feature of the college admissions process.
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