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Bruno: Actually, SAT Scores *Do* Matter

Are SAT scores useful for predicting who will be successful in college?

If you read the headlines last week, you could be excused for thinking that the answer is "no."

As it turns out, however, those headlines - and even the stories themselves - did not always accurately reflect the study they were discussing.

That study is very interesting. Among other things, it finds that at colleges that do not require SAT or ACT scores, students who choose not to submit their scores do about as well as students who do.

A casual reader could be forgiven for interpreting that to mean that SAT scores "don't" or "shouldn't" matter in college admissions.

But that is not what the study found.

Indeed, as Professors Mark Warschauer and Morgan Polikoff pointed out, at various points in the study itself it is clear that in at least some circumstances SAT scores seem to matter a great deal.

For instance, consider this chart from pg. 47 of the study comparing college outcomes at "minority-serving institutions" for students with different high school GPAs and SAT scores:

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In other words, regardless of the GPA with which students enter minority-serving colleges, students with higher SAT scores seem to do much better in terms of both college GPA and graduation rates.

The predictive power of the SAT does not seem to be limited to minority-serving institutions, either. As this table from pg. 56 illustrates, SAT scores do seem to be correlated with measures of college success:

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So high school GPA and SAT scores together are modestly more predictive of college success than either measure alone.

It is worthwhile to look at how different college admissions policies affect college success rates. And it's interesting to know that, as the study authors put it, "hard work and good grades in high school matter, and they matter a lot."

But while this study gives us reason to revisit standard college admissions criteria, it would be a mistake to leap to the conclusion that SAT scores don't matter for success in college or should never be considered in college admissions. Arguably, portions of this study suggest the opposite. - PB (@MrPABruno)


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The question is not whether SAT/ACT scores tell anything about a student's ability to succeed in college; they clearly do. As a thought experiment, ask whether a student who scores in the bottom 5% of test-takers is likely to have trouble in a highly demanding college; and ask whether one who scores in the top 5% is likely to have far less trouble.

These suppositions don't say anything about any individual high-scoring or low-scoring student; there are always outliers. But they do reflect reality with respect to the likelihood of college success among groups of such students.

But most students are in the middle range. They end up attending colleges that are not super demanding, and where HS grades, work ethic, support systems, and other non-test-score related factors have room to exert a lot of influence on whether and how well the students progress through college.

Given that the SAT was originally designed to find bright students from unknown high schools (as opposed to wealthy students from East coast high schools and prep schools), it's not surprising that it has better predictive value at the right and left ends of the academic performance curve.

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