NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


November 19, 2008

Do SAT scores predict graduation rates more accurately than high school grade-point averages (GPAs)?  If we merely look at SAT scores and high school grades with graduate rates, then yes; however, this data doesn't tell us which of the indicators a better predictor of college success is.  Thanks to the State University of New York (SUNY), America's largest comprehensive university system, we now can, says Peter Salins, professor of political science at SUNY Stony Brook.

In the 1990s, several SUNY campuses chose to raise their admissions standards by requiring higher SAT scores, while others opted to keep them unchanged.  Thus, by comparing graduate rates at SUNY campuses that raised the SAT admissions bar with those that didn't, we have a controlled experiment that can fairly conclusively tell us whether SAT scores were accurate predictors of whether a student would get a degree, says Salins.

Consider the changes in admissions profiles and 6 year graduation rates of the classes entering in 1997 and 2001 at 6 of SUNY's baccalaureate institutions:

  • At Stony Brook, the average entering freshman SAT score went up 7.9 percent, to 1164, and the graduation rate rose by 10 percent; meanwhile, Albany's average freshman SAT score increased by only 1.3 percent and its graduation rate fell by 2.7 percent, to 64 percent.
  • Brockport's average freshman SAT score rose 5.7 percent to 1080, and its graduation rate increased by 18.7 percent, to 58.5 percent; Oswego's freshman SAT average rose by only 3 percent and its graduation rate fell by 1.9 percent, to 52.6 percent.
  • Oneonta's freshman SAT score increased by 6.2 percent, to 1069, and its graduation rate rose 25.3 percent, to 58.9 percent; Plattsburgh's average freshman SAT score increased by 1.3 percent and its graduation rate fell sharply, by 6.3 percent, to 55.1 percent.

Overall, researchers found that only those campuses whose incoming student's SAT scores improved substantially saw gains in graduate rates, says Salins.

College administrators who really seek to understand the value of the test based on good empirical evidence would do well to learn from the varied experiences of New York's state university campuses, says Salins.

Source: Peter D. Salins, "The Test Passes, Colleges Fail," New York Times, November 17, 2008.

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