“I didn’t finish a single section on any one part of the test,” he recalled. “I knew I did terrible.”
While his resulting score – 22 out of 36 – might seem to bode ill for college success, Austin was accepted into Bellarmine University and, after several changes in majors and initial struggles balancing soccer and academics, he graduated in May with good grades and a promising future.
But his experience made him wonder: Despite their reputation as a high-stakes pillar of college admissions, just how good are entrance exams at predicting college success? He decided to see how it was playing out at his own university in a student research project, the results of which were displayed during the annual Academic Achievement Week in April.
Austin found there was more of a correlation between ACT scores and college GPAs than he had expected. But he said the research showed that the test was an imperfect measure that varied based on gender or chosen major.
“There is a relationship,” he said. “But it’s not showing the ACT is the predictor of your cumulative GPA. There are other factors that affect it.”
The debate over the value of college entrance exams has been in the national spotlight in recent months. Tests such as the SAT, which grew out of an Army IQ test, and the ACT now drive a $2 billion annual test-prep market. But earlier this year, the College Board announced big changes to the SAT after determining its content was too disconnected from high school curriculums. Free online test-prep was also added to address what some view as an inequality based on affluent students’ greater access to expensive test-prep programs.
The issue also made headlines after a National Association for College Admissions Counseling study found that colleges that make ACT or SAT scores optional saw little differences in graduation rate or GPAs between students who did send in test scores and those who did not. It said further that while most four-year colleges still require the test scores, high school grades are a far more accurate predictor of student success in college.
That’s not a surprise to Dr. Sean Ryan, vice president for enrollment management at Bellar-mine. He said the university does require standardized test scores with applications, but considers the results as only one part of a package.
“It’s one factor. GPA is more of a factor. We require standardized test scores, but we look at recommendations, GPA, involvement and leadership,” he said. “ACT, in my view, isn’t the only thing for admission, but it is one tool.”
In defense of the tests, he said the admissions office will receive nearly 8,400 applications this year and will accept a little over half of them. While grades are important, the rigor or quality of courses can vary among schools and districts. By contrast, the ACT or SAT test is “the only tool that puts everyone on the same running track, with the same wind blowing,” he said.
Before he began his research project, Austin said he’d already read studies on the ACT’s ability to predict success in a student’s freshman year, a time when grades can be affected by the difficult transition to college. Other research he found showed that ACT results were affected by socioeconomic backgrounds and the level of test-prep in school or by private tutors.
To do his research, he gathered archival data on the 1,688 ACT scores from Bellarmine freshmen from 2005 through 2009. He compared that data with their cumulative four-year GPAs, and also examined gender and chosen majors.
He found a fairly strong connection between ACT score and GPA, he said, although once he examined the data by factors such as majors and gender, that connection began to weaken.
For example, ACT scores strongly reflected college grade outcomes in some majors – accounting, business, nursing, physical therapy and exercise science. In others, including economics, finance, math and physics, the exam results seemed to be a weaker predictor of success.
“Of the majors that did have a strong relationship, they all were significant for females, but only half were for males,” he said, noting also that among criminal justice majors, men with higher ACT scores had lower GPAs, while the opposite was true for women.
Austin said his own journey through school showed him firsthand the myriad factors that can influence success in college.
Arriving at Bellarmine on a soccer scholarship, he struggled during his freshman year to balance 18 hours of classes and a busy soccer practice and game schedule, he said. As he gained his footing, he switched from accounting to engineering, and later to psychology. His grades improved as he found a better academic fit, and his cumulative GPA for psychology classes is around 3.7, he said.
In late April, Austin had been trying out with professional soccer teams in Finland and hoping to play professionally somewhere. But he’s also interested in going to graduate school and working in organizational psychology.
Looking back, he said, all those twists and turns couldn’t have been predicted by a test.
“If you were to put all your weight in the ACT, yes or no,” in selecting students, he said, “in my mind, that’s not a good thing.”
Chris Kenning | firstname.lastname@example.org