US: SAT a poor predictor of academic success

The SAT test commonly used by American universities and colleges to select students for entry is a poor predictor of how well the students will actually perform on campus, a new study has found. An analysis of a decade of research at the University of California has produced compelling evidence that the SAT does not identify the students most likely to succeed in college.

In an investigation into almost 125,000 students entering the University of California between 1996 and 2001, researchers at the university's Center for Studies in Higher Education found that high school grades were consistently the best predictor of college performance. The study also revealed that, as an admissions criterion, high school results had much less of an adverse impact than the SAT on admission of poor and minority applicants.

A research paper was commissioned for the inaugural conference of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice, to be held at the University of Southern California next month. Written by CSHE researcher Saul Geiser, the paper says achievement tests that measure students' knowledge of college-preparatory subjects are superior to tests of general reasoning ability, such as the SAT. Geiser was formerly director of admissions research for the University of California system.

His findings were published last week as the university regents prepare to consider a faculty proposal to drop achievement tests as a requirement for admission and to require only the SAT. If approved, the proposal would up-end university policies instituted over the past decade that substantially reduced the weight given to SAT scores and increased the weight for high school grades and achievement scores that select the top 12..5% of California's high school graduates.

In his paper, Geiser notes that the 'Scholastic Aptitude Test', introduced in 1926, purported to measure a student's capacity for learning. He says the idea of the SAT dovetailed perfectly with the meritocratic ethos of American college admissions.

If aptitude for learning could be reliably measured, the SAT could provide a vehicle for social mobility: colleges could identify promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds who, despite inferior instruction and academic performance, were nevertheless deserving to be admitted.

"All of these claims - equity, uniformity, technical reliability and prediction - resonated closely with the meritocratic values of leading universities and help explain the SAT's remarkable endurance and growth over the past century," Geiser writes.

"Though both the test and the terminology describing what it is intended to measure have evolved over time - from 'aptitude' to 'generalised reasoning' and most recently 'critical thinking' - the one constant has been the SAT's claim to tap students' general ability to reason and learn, as distinct from their mastery of specific subject matter."

But Geiser says that on closer scrutiny, many of the claimed advantages of the SAT over traditional measures of academic achievement have been found to be illusory:

* The SAT is a relatively poor predictor of student performance whereas admissions criteria that tap mastery of curriculum content, such as high-school grades and achievement tests, are more valid indicators of how students are likely to perform in college.
* As an admissions criterion, the SAT has a more adverse impact on poor and minority applicants than high-school grades, class rank and other measures of academic achievement, while admissions criteria that emphasise demonstrated achievement over potential ability are more likely to promote educational equity.