Test scores don’t stack up to GPAs in predicting college success

UChicago Consortium study finds high-school GPAs outweigh ACTs for college readiness

Students’ high-school grade point averages are five times stronger than their ACT scores at predicting college graduation, according to a new study from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

UChicago Consortium researchers found that the predictive power of GPAs is consistent across high schools—something that did not hold true for test scores. At many high schools, they discovered no connection between students’ ACT scores and eventual college graduation. The authors were also surprised to find that, at some high schools, students with the highest ACT scores were less likely to succeed in college.

These findings suggest that college admissions may be overemphasizing test scores, or that high school students with high test scores may be less prepared for demanding college programs than they believe.

“The bottom line is that high school grades are powerful tools for gauging students’ readiness for college, regardless of which high school a student attends, while ACT scores are not,” said co-author Elaine M. Allensworth, the Lewis-Sebring Director of the UChicago Consortium, which for three decades has shaped education reform through groundbreaking research.

Published Jan. 27 in Educational Researcher, the study is the first to explicitly test whether standardized assessments are comparable across high schools as measures of college readiness.

Allensworth co-authored the study with Kallie Ann Clark, AM’15, a doctoral student in the School of Social Service Administration. They examined 55,084 students who graduated from Chicago Public Schools of varying academic profiles between 2006 and 2009, and who then immediately enrolled in a four-year college. At the time of the study, all Illinois students took the ACT in the spring of 11th grade.

The researchers found that each incremental increase in GPA is associated with an increase in the odds of graduating college. Across the high schools studied, students with high school GPAs under 1.5 had around a 20% chance of graduating from college. For students with GPAs of 3.75 or higher, those chances rose to around 80%.

High-school GPAs might be stronger indicators of college readiness because they measure a wider variety of skills—including effort over an entire semester in many different types of classes, and demonstration of academic skills through multiple formats. On the other hand, standardized tests measure a smaller set of skills, and students can prepare for these tests in narrow ways that may not translate into better preparation to succeed in college.

“Extensive time spent preparing for standardized tests will have much less payoff for postsecondary success than effort put into coursework, as reflected in students’ grades,” said Clark, who stressed that middle- and high-school educators should direct more time and resources into supporting students’ overall school engagement.

The study results come at a time when many colleges are reconsidering the importance of standardized test scores. In 2018, UChicago became the first highly selective college to make standardized tests optional in the application process.

In addition, Allensworth and Clark found that some students are more likely to graduate college if they come from certain high schools—differences that were not explained by GPAs or ACT scores. These school effects may be the result of more rigorous academic programs at some high schools than others, different non-academic supports for preparing students for college, or simply a tendency of families with more resources for college to send their students to particular high schools.

“Understanding why students from some high schools succeed in college more than students at other schools is an important next step for better supporting all students’ ability to earn a college degree,” Clark said.

Citation: “High School GPAs and ACT Scores as Predictors of College Completion: Examining Assumptions About Consistency Across High Schools,” Allensworth and Clark, Educational Researcher, Jan. 27, 2020. DOI: 10.3102/0013189X20902110

Funding note: This research was supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

—This story was adapted from an American Educational Research Association press release.