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A lot of high school seniors around the country are waiting anxiously for April, when they'll learn if they got into the college or university of their choice. On top of the application, grades, essays and recommendations, an SAT or ACT test score can play a big role. These standardized tests are still a central part of the college acceptance process. But a first-of-its-kind study, obtained by NPR, raises big questions about the predictive power of the tests.
NPR's Eric Westervelt has our story.
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ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: On a drizzly Saturday in Belmont, California, a suburb south of San Francisco, high school students are walking out of the Belmont Library looking frazzled after four hours communing with paper, chair and pencil.
Mara Meijer is one of them. The high school junior says some day she wants to be a veterinarian.
MARA MEIJER: A lot of my teachers have said that if you don't have these scores, they won't even look at your applications. So I've taken several classes. I have tons of books at home that I practice over the weekend and after school, so I can work on upping my score.
WESTERVELT: Upping my score. It's a mantra for teens across the U.S. But Meijer questions, as do a growing number of students and parents, why America remains addicted to these standardized tests in the first place.
MEIJER: They're not exactly a fair way to show our skills. And I wish they could find some way to really show what we can do.
WESTERVELT: Today, some 800 out of the roughly 3,000 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. make SAT or ACT test submissions optional. But before this study out today, no one had taken a hard, broad look at just how students at those test optional schools are really doing, what their grades and graduation rates are compared to their counterparts who submitted test results.
The study's main author is Bill Hiss, the former dean of admissions at Bates College - one of the first test-optional schools.
BILL HISS: My hope is that this study will be a first step in examining what happens when you admit tens of thousands of students without looking at their SAT scores. And the answer is: If they have good high school grades, they're almost certainly going to be fine.
WESTERVELT: Hiss's study, Defining Promise, examined data from nearly three dozen test optional U.S. schools - from small liberal arts to large public universities - over eight cohort years. He found that there was virtually no difference at all in grades and graduation rates between test submitters and non-submitters. Those who didn't submit scores had cumulative grade rates just five one-hundredths of a GPA point lower than submitters, and graduation rates just six-tenths of one percent less.
HISS: By any statistical methodology, completely trivial differences. The non-submitters are doing fine in terms of their graduation rates and GPAs, and significantly out performing their standardized testing.
WESTERVELT: In other words, those students actually performed far better in college than their SAT and ACT stores might lead one to expect.
The study has another clear result: High school grades matter - a lot. For both those who submitted test results and those who didn't, high school grades were the best predictor of a student's success in college. And kids who had low or modest test scores but good high school grades did better in college than those with good scores but modest grades.
HISS: So perhaps it's not surprising that young people who have developed habits of curiosity and self-discipline and hard work, that that pattern shows up as highly predictive, in contrast to what they do in three or four hours on a particular Saturday morning in a testing room.
WESTERVELT: Some are calling this study a potential game-changer that may prompt schools to evaluate whether there is remaining value in requiring standardized tests. Before now, data on outcomes for test-optional programs were almost always school-specific or largely anecdotal, says Robert Schaeffer with the advocacy group FairTest, a longtime critic of standardized testing.
ROBERT SCHAEFFER: Now we have a study that covers 123,000 students at 33 institutions over eight years. And the conclusion: That test optional admissions improves diversity, does not undermine academic quality. Now more college and universities will have the data they need to support dropping ACT and SAT requirements.
WESTERVELT: A little history. The SAT grew out of an Army IQ test that got the attention of presidents at two prestigious Ivy League schools. After World War II, Bill Hiss says, most every other school in America followed the Ivys with good intentions.
HISS: Try to and open access to colleges and universities and to allow young people coming out of unfancy social backgrounds to be noticed.
WESTERVELT: A big test, the theory went, would allow more diamonds in the rough to be found and accepted to good schools regardless of family connections or money. But, Hiss argues, what started as one tool quickly became an overused pillar of admissions.
HISS: The scores, while they still certainly can help spot a highly talented person coming out of a different sort of a background, they serve more to truncate access than to open it.
WESTERVELT: John Fraire agrees. He's vice president for student affairs and enrollment at Washington State University, one of the six large de facto test-optional public universities that took part in the study. Fraire believes standardized tests are artificially narrowing the pool of students who would succeed. Kids who do badly on tests might not even bother to apply.
JOHN FRAIRE: In some ways it's discouraging students who have great potential for success for not applying to at particular school. Most of our students aren't from privileged backgrounds. You know, they're from the rural communities, the inner-city Latino community, African-American community. And that's why I think this study is so important.
WESTERVELT: Critics of the SAT and ACT have long said they better reflect your family's income and your speed at test-taking than aptitude, competency or intelligence. But officials at the College Board, which administers and manages the SAT, say the test is always evolving. James Montoya, the College Board's vice president for higher education, says he's heartened by the study's conclusion that high school grades matter a lot in determining college success.
And he points to a previous study that showed SAT scores, when combined with high school grades, proved a strong predictor of first-year college success across economic groups. Montoya says overall the SAT expands opportunity.
JAMES MONTOYA: The information in this study, of course, is valuable. But I also think it needs to be put into context in relationship to the many thousands of colleges and universities who find that the SAT is an extremely useful tool in the admissions process.
WESTERVELT: A senior official with the ACT, Wayne Camara, adds that in college admissions more information is always better.
WAYNE CAMARA: Another reason why tests are also important is to ensure that grade inflation is held at bay.
WESTERVELT: The study may add to the current policy debate. There's a renewed push, led by President Obama, to expand the college pool, especially by getting more first generation, low-income and minority students into college. This study shows that that non-test submitters are more likely to be precisely those students.
Twenty-year-old Evy Borkan from Portland, Oregon says she benefited from test-optional admissions policies. She was a strong student in high school, but she just didn't have great SAT scores.
EVY BORKAN: I did well in my classes in high school. I worked hard in them and I felt really comfortable with sending in my GPA.
WESTERVELT: Evy was drawn to Pitzer College, a liberal arts school near L.A. She liked the feel of the place, its academic offerings, and another big factor: submitting SAT scores was optional.
BORKAN: I just liked the fact that they were putting into question the merit SAT scores can hold on a college application, and that just made me feel more comfortable.
WESTERVELT: Now a Pitzer sophomore, Evy is doing very well. The test-optional kids, it seems, are more than all right. This study shows they're thriving. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And you can see that full study at NPR.org.