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Test Scores Remain Vital in College Admissions


We are in the midst of the annual college admissions cycle when many high school seniors are making decisions about where they will attend college in the fall. During this time of year I often see news stories that dismiss the role of admissions tests. Unfortunately, many of those stories are misinformed about the utility and value such assessments provide to students, schools, and colleges.
The biggest misperception I see is the argument that high school grades are the best indicator of college success and, therefore, we don’t really need standardized admissions tests. This notion is misinformed. That’s a polite way of saying it is nonsense.

Let’s start with the fallacy in the argument. High school grades are not, in fact, the best indicator of college success. Neither are test scores alone. In fact, the best predictor of success in college coursework is the combination of the two—grades and test scores together. Hundreds of independent studies have shown this to be true.

The figure below illustrates the additional value test scores contribute beyond grades.  Two students with the same high school GPA of 3.0 may have widely different probabilities of attaining a similar college freshmen GPA based on their ACT scores.  If one student had an ACT Composite score of 20, they had a 28% probability of earning a 3.0 or higher freshman GPA; if another student had an ACT Composite score of 30, they had a 54% probability.

High school grades have their limitations.  They not only reflect the idiosyncrasies of individual teachers’ grading standards and differences in course rigor, but they also contain inflation. More than 55 percent of college-bound students report having high school grades above 3.25, and 25 percent of U.S. high schools report an average GPA of 3.75 or higher for their graduating class.

We often accept the hypothesis that grades are fair and unbiased indicators of future success without much scrutiny, but grade inflation has steadily increased in the past few decades, and it has increased more rapidly for white and Asian-American students coming from more highly educated families.

Educators acknowledge that there are differences in the quality of schools and the rigor of curriculum. Test scores are one measure that helps colleges navigate and mitigate those differences, allowing them to compare the preparation of students coming from different backgrounds and different experiences. Without test scores, colleges must rely on their own subjective impressions of different groups of students and the quality of different high schools.  We know that subjective impressions and decisions have biases which are often implicit and never as accurate as empirical data.

Admissions tests provide a common metric that allows colleges to evaluate students who attend different high schools, live in different states, complete different courses, and receive different grades from different teachers. High school GPA simply cannot do that.


Good decision-making in the admissions process requires consideration of multiple sources of data; important decisions that impact students’ lives should never be based solely on one metric.  Research has shown that around 70 percent of college-bound students actually perform similarly across both high school grades and admission test scores (i.e., high, average or low on both measures).  In such situations, tests and grades provide confirmatory evidence that can increase our confidence in our decisions.

In the other 30 percent of situations, a student’s high school grades may be significantly higher or lower than his or her ACT scores. When this occurs, admissions professionals justifiably may place much scrutiny on both the test scores and grades. Perhaps the test scores become less persuasive and relevant, or possibly the grades and other factors receive additional scrutiny.  This is not a rationale to dismiss objective test scores but rather the justification for using multiple measures and professional judgment in evaluating college applicants and their potential fit and likely success at each institution. When multiple sources of information are available, basing decisions on less information is never the best solution.

Colleges, by and large, understand this. Most—despite what you may have heard—continue to require that applicants submit test scores. Colleges rank admissions test scores second in importance after high school grades earned in college-prep courses as an admission criterion. And they actually rank test scores above high school grades earned in all courses.

I often read articles that describe what admissions tests don’t do, but they ignore or lose sight of what admission tests can do.   ACT score results, for example, help with college and career planning. ACT score reports provide feedback on the types of careers and majors that best match the student’s interests and skills. They also provide an early indicator of the types of colleges at which students may be most competitive and allow parents, teachers and counselors to assist students in planning for admissions. Not every student can or should go to an Ivy League college, and admissions tests help determine potential schools and colleges that may best fit a student’s preparation and aspiration.

There is no single measure that can definitively predict future behavior by itself, and all measures have limitations.  The best decisions are made when multiple sources of data are considered. There is no reason to ignore test scores, just as there is no reason to ignore previous accomplishments, high school grades, or personal factors that have influenced a student’s development and aspirations.

Our ultimate goal should be to help students land where they have the best possibility of success, and there is no question that admissions test scores help accomplish this goal.

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