Do Higher SAT/ACT Scores Indicate College-Readiness?

One of the buzzwords making its way around the educational and political spheres is “college readiness,” especially in relation to standardized tests. What are the factors that contribute, or at least indicate, that a student is ready to take on the academics at a college or university?

Do the SAT and ACT provide us with helpful indicators of college-readiness?

The term “college readiness” has received so much attention precisely because it is so difficult to pin down. In his 2007 article entitled “Redefining College Readiness,” David Conley explains that college readiness “is a multi-faceted concept comprising numerous variables that include factors both internal and external to the school environment,” (12). Conley describes various facets of what it means to be “ready” for college. A student ready for college, he argues, needs to have mastery of the following:

  • Key cognitive strategies
  • Key content
  • Academic behaviors
  • Contextual skills and awareness

What claims do the SAT and ACT make regarding college-readiness?

Both the SAT and ACT claim to be tests that serve as accurate indicators of college readiness. The ACT website says that “the ACT Test is a curriculum- and standards-based educational and career planning tool that assesses students’ academic readiness for college.” The SAT also states that “the combination of high school grades and SAT scores is the best predictor of your academic success in college.

What do SAT andACT studies show?

Both tests have studies to back up their claims. A 2012 study conducted by the ACT found that the correlation between the ACT composite score and the first-year college GPA had a coefficient of 0.51 (2).  A 2012 College Board study found similar results: the SAT had a correlation coefficient of 0.53 with the freshman-year college GPA (5). A coefficient of 1 indicates very strong correlation (think of a classic line graph with a positive slope), a coefficient of 0 indicates no correlation (think of jelly beans dropped on the kitchen floor), so a coefficient of 0.5 has a medium correlation. In other words, the higher the SAT or ACT score, the higher the freshman-year GPA.

As the coefficient shows, studies from both tests show correlation with freshman year GPA, which is also correlated with graduation rates. Does one test correlate more strongly?

Is one test a better indicator than the other?

With both tests, neither content nor strategy is king. The SAT may require you to think more outside the box for some problems, but the ACT has more content, especially with the math and science sections. Both tests require processing strategies, mastery of content, academic discipline, and ability to pick up the context surrounding the problem.

What does “medium correlation” mean?

Someone may be wondering, “why do standardized tests have only a medium correlation?” That question deserves consideration. There are a host of other factors besides academic ability that go into determining your freshman GPA. Whether it’s involvement (or over-involvement) in extracurriculars, reassessment of priorities, acclimatization to a new environment, or adjusting to a professor’s different learning method, everyone responds differently to the opportunities and challenges that college affords. It would be impossible to find that one indicator that, if corrected, would get everyone a 4.0 at the end of their first year.

On the other hand, these studies do provide a helpful indicator of freshman year GPA. Contrary to what some students may think, the score you get on the SAT or ACT does tell colleges more about your educational development and abilities. Combined with the high school GPA, the SAT and ACT scores can become an even better predictor of how a student will do in freshman classes.

Are there better tests out there?

Other assessments are in the mix to answer the question of college readiness. The PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) is creating a set of K-12 assessments for English and math that are aligned with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Another organization, Smarter Balanced, is set to begin a pilot test of “next-generation student assessments” that show videos, require students to write explanations for solving problems, and feature interactive math figures. These programs plan to be rolled out in the 2014-15 year, but it’s uncertain if or when colleges would begin to accept such assessments for applications.

For now, the SAT and ACT remain the most helpful indicators of college readiness when combined with high school GPA. Both tests claim about the same correlation with freshman year GPA, so pick the test that matches your style, and go for it!


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