If California goes test-optional, could grades alone predict academic success?

As the University of California and California State University systems face calls to drop the ACT and SAT exams as admission requirements, policymakers are considering other ways to gauge students’ college-readiness, the Los Angeles Times reports. High school grades, in particular, could take on even more importance under a test-optional admissions process. 

The University of California (UC) system launched a task force last year to weigh whether to continue requiring standardized test scores as part of its admissions criteria amid concerns that exams exacerbate racial and ethnic disparities. The system is expected to issue recommendations by February, with California State to follow suit. Given UC’s size and influence, the decision is likely to sway how other institutions view the role of standardized testing in college admissions. 

Would grades alone be an effective predictor?

Advocates for reducing reliance on test scores and increasing the weight put on grades cite research showing that high school grades are the best predictor of a successful first year of college and are less heavily influenced by factors like income and race. 

“[Our] research and practice keep revealing the same hard truth: The SAT and ACT tests are a poor indicator of college readiness and a barrier to college access for diverse student populations,” Mo Hyman, executive director of the nonprofit College Access Plan, wrote in EdSource

How well would students with strong grade point averages but low test scores fare on UC campuses? According to Zachary Bleemer, a research associate at UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, they’re likely to thrive. Bleemer studied 8,000 UC students who had enrolled via a program that guaranteed admission to students at the top of their high school class—and had tested far behind their peers—and found that they graduated at a rate of 77 percent, compared to 83 percent among UC peers. The rate, he noted, was still much higher than if they had attended a community college. 

Data from UC Riverside—which has the second-lowest SAT scores for entering freshman among the UC system’s nine undergraduate campuses—shows similar outcomes. The six-year graduation rate for students who enrolled in 2012 and 2013 with SAT scores of 900-1090 was 81 percent, compared with 83 percent for those with SAT scores of 1100-1600. Students with scores below 900 had a lower graduation rate of 73 percent, but the LA Times notes that students who had high SAT scores and lower GPAs fared even worse, with a 65 percent graduation rate.   

However, critics of using GPAs in isolation—including both the ACT and the College Board—caution that grade inflation is more prevalent at wealthier schools. They also question whether grades are a reliable indicator of content mastery.

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