New Study Finds That Colleges Don’t Need the SAT or the ACT

A major new study by the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) looked at the college performance of eight cohorts of students from 33 colleges and universities. These 33 institutions do not require students to submit standardized test scores for admission. Like many previous studies, this one found that high school grades are better predictors of college success than scores on college entry examinations like the SAT or ACT.

The bottom line: Colleges and universities can learn more about future students by reviewing their four-year record of persistence and achievement rather than the results of an arbitrary test offered on one day, particularly one where some students have the means to pay for tutors to boost their scores. Colleges and universities do not need admission test scores to know which students are likely to succeed. The entry exams tend to have a disparate and negative impact on the neediest students. They are an unworthy gatekeeper. They waste the time, effort, and money of students. They benefit the testing corporations and the test prep industry, not students who hope to gain entrance to of institutions of higher education.

Here is the abstract of that study:

“This study examines the outcomes of optional standardized testing policies in the Admissions offices at 33 public and private colleges and universities, based on cumulative GPA and graduation rates. The study also examines which students are more likely to make use of an optional testing policy, and how optional testing policies can offer important enrollment and financial planning benefits. Four cohorts of institutions are examined: twenty private colleges and universities, six public universities, five minority- serving institutions and two arts institutions, with a total of just under 123,000 student and alumni records. Few significant differences between submitters and non-submitters of testing were observed in Cumulative GPAs and graduation rates, despite significant differences in SAT/ACT scores. Optional testing policies also help build broader access to higher education: non-submitters are more likely to be first-generation-to-college students, minorities, Pell Grant recipients, women and students with Learning Differences.”

Here is the summary:

“Previous research on standardized testing in admissions has examined the predictive value of testing and its fairness across widely differing pools of students. For over thirty years but increasingly in the last decade, hundreds of institutions have made admissions testing optional. This three-year study is the first major published research to evaluate optional testing policies in depth and across institutional types.

“With various forms of optional testing policies, the thirty-three colleges and universities in this study make admissions decisions without standardized testing as a credential for all students. Deliberately, the study reaches beyond the various “top 25” or “most competitive” lists. We include institutions in four categories: twenty private colleges and universities, six public universities, five minority-serving institutions, and two arts institutions, a total of approximately 123,000 student records at institutions with enrollments from 50,000 students to 350, located in twenty-two US states and territories. They vary widely, from a large scientific and technical university to a Native American college, from traditional liberal arts colleges and universities to fine arts/design institutions to urban and rural minority-serving institutions. We tried to ask, “Who is doing the heavy lifting, serving broad constituencies? Who is exploring the breadth of human intellect and promise in imaginative ways? Who is reaching out to serve students most desperately in need of access to higher education?”

“A fundamental question is: “Are college admissions decisions reliable for students who are admitted without SAT or ACT scores?” Many national educational research and philanthropic organizations such as the Lumina Foundation have presented findings to demonstrate that America will need to find successful paths to higher education for hundreds of thousands of additional first-generation-to-college, minority, immigrant and rural students, in order to grow America’s economy and social stability. This study provides the research support for optional testing as at least one route by which that can happen.

“Test scores contribute to college guidebook rankings. Perhaps equally important is self- selection by students who do not apply to colleges based on perceptions of testing or on advice from their high schools or parents. The National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) “Report on the Commission on the Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admissions” urged colleges and universities to “take back the conversation” about testing from the various groups for whom testing was either a profession or a cause. i This study is a contribution to that discussion.

“Does standardized testing produce valuable predictive results, or does it artificially truncate the pools of applicants who would succeed if they could be encouraged to apply? At least based on this study, it is far more the latter. In a wide variety of settings, non- submitters are out-performing their standardized testing. Others may raise the more complex issues of test bias, but we are asking a much simpler and more direct question: if students have an option to have their admissions decisions made without test scores, how well do these students succeed, as measured by cumulative GPAs and graduation rates?”

Here is a summary of the findings:

“With approximately 30% of the students admitted as non-submitters over a maximum of eight cohort years, there are no significant differences in either Cumulative GPA or graduation rates between submitters and non-submitters. Across the study, non-submitters (not including the public university students with above-average testing, to focus on the students with below-average testing who are beneficiaries of an optional testing policy) earned Cumulative GPAs that were only .05 lower than submitters, 2.83 versus 2.88. The difference in their graduation rates was .6%. With almost 123,00 students at 33 widely differing institutions, the differences between submitters and non-submitters are five one-hundredths of a GPA point, and six-tenths of one percent in graduation rates. By any standard, these are trivial differences.

“• College and university Cumulative GPAs closely track high school GPAs, despite wide variations in testing. Students with strong HSGPAs generally perform well in college, despite modest or low testing. In contrast, students with weak HSGPAs earn lower college Cum GPAs and graduate at lower rates, even with markedly stronger testing. A clear message: hard work and good grades in high school matter, and they matter a lot.

“• Non-submitters are more likely to be first-generation-to-college enrollees, all categories of minority students, women, Pell Grant recipients, and students with Learning Differences (LD). But across institutional types, white students also use optional testing policies at rates within low single digits of the averages, so the policies have broad appeal across ethnic groups.

“• Non-submitters support successful enrollment planning in a broad range of ways. They apply Early Decision at higher rates, increase enrollments by minority students, expand geographic appeal by enrolling at colleges far from their homes, and allow for success by Learning Difference students.

“• In a surprise finding, non-submitters display a distinct two-tail or bimodal curve of family financial capacity. First-generation, minority and Pell-recipient students will need financial aid support, but large pools of students not qualifying for or not requesting financial aid help balance institutional budgets.

“• Non-submitters may commonly be missed in consideration for no-need merit financial awards, despite better Cum GPAs and markedly higher graduation rates than the submitters who receive merit awards. Institutions may want to examine their criteria for merit awards, especially the use of standardized testing to qualify students for no-need merit funding.”

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education, Research Professor of Education at New York University and posts at


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