What’s the big deal about the SAT & ACT anyway? That question deserves a strong, reasonable response, considering how much attention these important exams command. When you get down to it, the SAT & ACT matter because of their role as college admissions tests. Colleges value these standardized assessments because student score data helps admissions make better decisions, which leads to greater success for both students and schools.
But do the tests really facilitate better admissions decisions?
On the one hand, these tests offer tremendous insight just by nature of being objective measures of an entire college-bound cohort of high school graduates. Everyone takes iterations of the same test so that their test scores can be compared, but also so that their more subjective high school grades can be understood against an objective benchmark. This explains in part how colleges can discern differences between crowds of students with similar GPAs but different educational backgrounds.
On the other hand, SAT scores have traditionally promised more than just basic benchmarking. The College Board promotes every version of the SAT as a very strong predictor of first-year college performance, which hits the sweet spot for colleges concerned with the high cost of first-year student attrition. According to the New York Times, more than 70% of Americans matriculate at a four-year college, yet fewer than two-thirds end up graduating.
High school grade point average has always been considered the strongest single predictor of first-year college performance. The SAT & ACT have both been recognized, at least by some, as good indicators in their own right in isolation, but superior in concert with GPA to all other metrics.
The 2005 version of the SAT shone in this regard, although ironically, colleges routinely ignored SAT Writing scores, even though, of the three SAT sections on that test, Writing exhibited the highest correlation with first-year college GPA. Interestingly, the University of California system conducted its own research and found that SAT scores were slightly more predictive than high school grade point average!
The obvious question today is how the newest iteration of the SAT stacks up in terms of predictive validity. According to the new College Board report, The Redesigned SAT® Pilot Predictive Validity Study: A First Look, this new test can still be trusted:
“Results of study analyses show that the redesigned SAT is as predictive of college success as the current SAT, that redesigned SAT scores improve the ability to predict college performance above high school GPA alone, and that there is a strong, positive relationship between redesigned SAT scores and grades in matching college course domains, suggesting that the redesigned SAT is sensitive to instruction in English language arts, math, science, and history/social studies.”
Future research by both the test makers and colleges will continue to assess the value of the SAT & ACT as college admissions exams. For now, take comfort in the fact that, as you raise your test scores, you are, to a certain extent, also improving your odds of first year college success. That’s worth some extra effort, right?