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Rethinking the Standardized Test as a Predictor of College Success

Posted in Higher Education

Rethinking the Standardized Test as a Predictor of College Success

We’ve all seen (or experienced) it before: high school students fretting over tenths of a point in their GPA, vying for a top ranking in class, or spending their Saturdays with SAT tutors or enrolled in test prep programs.

Though grade point averages and standardized test scores continue to weigh heavily in college admissions (don’t write off your exams just yet, students), the good news is that things are changing. Broader, more flexible assessments are taking hold — and, in some cases, replacing the concept of the student’s potential being distilled down to a number from one test.

Why, after so many years, the change? In large part, it’s due to emerging evidence-based research on how people learn — plus a more comprehensive understanding of what constitutes success and the variables that contribute to it.

How standardized are standardized tests? 

For years, major gaps in Standardized Achievement Test (SAT) scores among higher and lower income students, among boys and girls, and among ethnicities have led many to ask: just how standardized is this so-called standardized test?

Consider these data points. With every additional $20,000 of family income, students’ test scores rise. In addition, boys score an average of 45 points higher than their female counterparts, especially in math, and they’ve done so since 1972 — for 41 straight years.

If the SAT is supposed to be a reliable indicator of how well students will perform freshman year, why, then, do girls tend to earn higher grades (even in math) that first year in college? Theories abound, and no one knows for sure, but a hard look at the data reveals that freshman performance and SAT scores just don’t correlate. Explains ABC News reporter John Allen Paulos: “Most studies find that the correlation between SAT scores and first-year college grades is not overwhelming, and that only 10 percent to 20 percent of the variation in first-year GPA is explained by SAT scores.”

Added to that is the fact that, aside from the addition of a writing assessment in 2005 — sparked in part by criticisms from the president of the University of California, Richard Atkinson, in 2003 — the test itself has not changed measurably to address any of the issues being raised (though some degree of change is underway, the College Board says).

What, then, is a college to do? With the SAT’s questionable reputation spreading fast, the blogosphere abounds with conversations about a need for fairer, broader assessments. According to studies, the other widely used standardized test, the ACT, is no better a predictor than the SAT, even though more students took the ACT this past year than ever before. According to Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss, who debunks standardized test scores in general (and SAT and ACT scores in particular), “no standardized test in which students sit there and fill in bubbles and write an essay can capture all of the work habits, coping skills, motivation, and other traits needed to be successful in college.”

What’s the outcome of all this backlash against standardized testing? Many schools are taking action. In a recent tally, as many as 875 accredited, bachelor degree-granting colleges and universities — roughly 30 percent of schools in the United States — no longer require test scores, whether SAT or ACT, as part of the admissions process. And this number is rising rapidly, says author Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, in a recent phone conversation with Woofound. “This month alone, several more colleges made the switch to some form of ‘test-optional,’ including Brandeis University (Waltham, MA), Hood College (Frederick, MD), and at least 4 others,” Schaeffer adds. “As the numbers keep climbing, more folks are acknowledging that standardized tests only describe a sliver of someone’s college potential.”

A broader look at success 

What’s fueling the changes? For one, the growing body of evidence-based research on what defines and contributes to achievement and success are broadening our mindset. According to Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, expanding our definitions of success — and acquiring what she refers to as a “growth mindset” — boosts motivation, productivity, risk-taking, and achievement, the very things that can make or break school or work experiences. Dweck explains it like this:

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success —without effort. They’re wrong.

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work — brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love to learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.

The idea that success requires more than brain smarts and talent is a hot topic. Think of, for instance, Paul Tough’s bestseller, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character . “The story we usually tell about childhood and success is the one about intelligence: success comes to those who score highest on tests, from preschool admissions to SATs,” Tough explains. Yet “the qualities that matter most have more to do with character: skills like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control.”

No wonder grades are often better indicators of college success than standardized test scores. When students work hard in high school and graduate with a strong GPA, they already possess some indicators of success — perseverance, conscientiousness, and self-control, to pull from Tough’s list. They’re less likely to fall among the “talented but class-skipping” crew.

Given my perspective that success in college (and life) depends largely on personal fit, which I’ve shared a number of times on this blog, I welcome this push beyond a more rigid, “fixed mindset” to one that’s open, flexible, and less of a “one-size-fits-all” approach to college, careers, and life. While the pinnacle of success once meant being a doctor, lawyer, or CEO, now it can mean so many things. Ultimately, it depends on the individual.

To learn more about how Woofound’s visual personality assessment, Compass, can guide students and job seekers to the right majors and careers, watch this video. Then contact us to learn more about how we can help.

Tags: standardized test standardized tests personality assessment SAT ACT

Hal Ashman is Chief Business Development Officer at Woofound, where he focuses on building partnerships with institutions of higher education in order to accelerate student academic and career success.