Study Finds Link Between SAT Scores and Freshman Grades

September 13, 2012

The debate over whether the SAT reliably predicts success in college has another argument in the test's favor: an article published in the journal Psychological Science, conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota and financed by the College Board, which owns the SAT.

The article, "The Role of Socioeconomic Status in SAT-Grade Relationships and in College Admissions Decisions," responds to persistent criticism that the test widely used in college admissions is a poor indicator of future academic performance and that it disadvantages low-income and minority students.

Using data from the College Board for 2006, the first year of the revised SAT, and for 1995 to 1997, the authors examine students' test scores, grade-point averages in both high school and freshman year of college, and socioeconomic status. The article maintains that even when accounting for family income and parents' education, there is a correlation between students' SAT scores and freshman grades.

Investigating the relationship between socioeconomic status, abbreviated as SES, and performance on the exam "was a personal interest of mine," said Paul R. Sackett, a professor of psychology at Minnesota who led the study and also serves as a research adviser to the College Board.

He and five colleagues at Minnesota concluded in this study that if a college were to rely heavily on the SAT in admissions decisions, it "would indeed screen out low-SES students at a higher rate. " But at the typical college, the researchers wrote, "SES does not play a primary exclusionary role in the admissions process," as lower-income students make up roughly the same share of enrolled students as they do applicants.

"The barrier to college for low-SES students in the United States," the article says, "is far more a matter of factors that affect the decision to enter the college application process."

Robert A. Schaeffer, public-education director at FairTest, a watchdog group, is skeptical of those findings."The only thing they look at to determine the SAT's impact on economic diversity is the difference in SES between the school's applicants and its admittees," he said. And he pointed out a limitation: "The College Board consistently focuses its funded research on first-year grades because they know that that is the time in an undergraduate's life there will be the highest correlation in test scores, and make their tests look best."

The College Board is continuing to track GPA over the course of students' undergraduate careers, said Mr. Sackett. He looks forward, he said, to another study with more data.