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The SAT Debate Shows We Need To Rethink High School GPA

By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission

David Leonhardt at the New York Times recently wrote an exceptionally important piece about the SAT, highlighting why it’s been foolish and shortsighted for colleges and universities to remove the standardized test from the admissions process. Over the past handful of years, many schools have made the assessment optional, or disallowed it entirely, over bias and inequity concerns.

Among those that have moved away from the SAT is the University of California system, home to some of the best, best known, and most respected schools in the country. In 2020, the Cal system banned consideration of test scores outright, a move that I dryly described at the time as “a bad decision.”

Which it was and is.

What makes the Leonhardt offering so important is not just that it supports my contention about the value of SAT scores in admissions. In addition, the NYT kicks the legs out from under a key admissions premise that we’ve been told and taken as gospel for a long, long time – that high school grades are a good indicator of college success. It’s not that grades and GPA don’t correlate to success in higher education, it’s that, according to Leonhardt’s reporting, standardized test scores predict college success better than grades.

That’s a big deal.

I’ve long written and argued that pre-college GPA measures the wrong thing –- obedience and rote adherence to organizational structure. That our primary and secondary schools were, and still are, designed to press out millions of factory workers for an industrial age. They reward showing up on time, grinding out the work regardless, and not causing trouble. Not only are those measurables not suited to the modern economy and workforce, they are not suited to college success.

Nonetheless, researchers and college admissions leaders spent literally generations prioritizing the 4.0 and telling us that getting good grades mapped as neatly as possible onto the college experience.

I can’t speculate as to whether the dynamics have changed or whether it was never really true that high school grade point average was a good predictor of post-secondary success. But my strong guess is that it was never really true. Or at least that it has not been true since the 1980s.

The reason so many people thought that grades were the leading indicator of college success may be because applicants with good grades were the only ones picked. This led to two outcomes. One, that there were never enough college students without good grades in comparable settings to make a fair comparison. And two, that students without the 4.0 or the 3.95 simply stopped applying to top schools, reinforcing the problem and incorrect conclusion.

Either way, we should know better now.

Leonhardt sources his conclusions and says succinctly, “Research has increasingly shown that standardized test scores contain real information, helping to predict college grades, chances of graduation and post-college success. Test scores are more reliable than high school grades.”

He wrote also that, “Researchers who have studied the issue say that test scores can be particularly helpful in identifying lower-income students and underrepresented minorities who will thrive. These students do not score as high on average as students from affluent communities or white and Asian students. But a solid score for a student from a less privileged background is often a sign of enormous potential.”

It’s this last point that moved me to oppose pulling standardized test scores from the admissions mosaic. Students who for whatever reason lacked the spotless grades, still deserved a way to show schools that they could achieve, that they could prosper in college and beyond – that failure to post a 4.0 did not mean they were a failure. As I wrote in 2020, “Denying students an opportunity to show their ability in a way other than grades will shut students out. Not maybe, definitely.”

And while it’s perfectly reasonable and responsible to question the accuracy or even potential bias of a high stakes standardized test, a test still shows something about an applicant. It never made sense that institutions of learning and enlightenment would affirmatively close their eyes to it. It still makes no sense. Especially now.

The new reporting should open the eyes of admissions departments and add to the calls for a serious discussion as to whether the non-academic lessons we’re delivering in high school track to college, or anywhere. My money is on they don’t, and that they haven’t for a long time.

Originally posted on Forbes on January 7, 2024.