A test is meaningless without validity. What value would you ascribe to a road test that couldn’t weed out unprepared drivers or a SCUBA certification program that fails to prepare divers for open water? True tests are not ends in and of themselves but rather milestones on a journey to something more significant such as knowledge, skill, or credentials.
When critics rail against tests like the SAT and ACT, they often seek to undermine the predictive validity of these exams. However, anecdotes about low scorers that excelled in college and life or high scorers that did not cannot replace actual statistical data. If an admissions test seeks widespread adoption, it must prove that the test scores improve admissions decisions. How do the SAT and ACT accomplish this? At the most fundamental level, standardized test scores can put student grades–which can sometimes be inflated or at least highly subjective–into a more objective context. The exams accomplish this not by assessing conventional intelligence but instead by analyzing broad reading, writing, and quantitative skills and reasoning (along with a cornucopia of executive and performance skills!)
Beyond that, admissions test scores should support the other pieces of a complete application in answering two simple questions critical to admission personnel:
1. Is this candidate likely to excel academically in the first year of college?
2. Is this candidate likely to return for the second year of college?
Older versions of the SAT were statistically proven to add accuracy to predictions of first year success. The newest iteration of the exam had to coast on its reputation until the long-term data came in. At last, the first national operational SAT validity study for the redesigned SAT has been completed, and the results look very good:
- SAT scores are strongly predictive of college performance—students with higher SAT scores are more likely to have higher grades in college.
- SAT scores are predictive of student retention to their second year—students with higher SAT scores are more likely to return for their sophomore year.
The study further concludes that SAT scores add, on average, 15% more predictive power than high school GPA alone for understanding how students will perform in college. When the outcomes being predicted are as life-altering as college success and completion, every little bit helps, and 15% is more than a little bit.
Obviously, critics of the SAT and ACT will continue to focus on the aspects of testing they find personally distasteful. However, studies like Validity of the SAT for Predicting First-Year Grades and Retention to the Second Year prove the value of these assessments in the challenging calculus of determining college admissions. If the data holds up–pronouncements from the College Board should always be carefully scrutinized–expect the tests to remain an essential component of competitive college admissions and a data point that can help colleges provide the right resources to students who need extra help with academic achievement and retention.