SAT scores well in predicting college success

State panel finds test is accurate gauge of retention, graduation rates in Md.

January 11, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun Reporter

The much-maligned but ever-influential SAT -- under fire nationally amid concerns over its fairness -- received positive marks yesterday in a report that gauged the test's power to predict long-term college success in Maryland.

Designed to forecast a student's ability to perform college-level work, the SAT is also an accurate predictor of retention and graduation rates at all of the state's four-year colleges and universities, according to an analysis of recent student data prepared for the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

"The higher the SAT scores of students, the greater the likelihood that they not only returned for a second year of study but eventually earned a baccalaureate as well," the report said.

The study comes a month after Salisbury University, joining a national trend, became Maryland's first public four-year college to allow some prospective freshmen to apply for admission without submitting standardized test scores.

The University of Baltimore, Bowie State University and Frostburg State University also have said they are considering test-optional policies in an attempt to attract more qualified students who might be dissuaded from applying because of low standardized test scores.

Though the commission's analysis confirmed the SAT's long-term predictive strength, the purpose of the study was not to test the test but rather to try to fairly evaluate Maryland's public colleges by isolating a variable common to them all -- SAT scores -- and then determining which institutions were most successful.

The study's key ostensible finding was that even when controlling for variance in SAT scores, each of the state's four historically black public universities is less effective in producing college graduates than every one of the state's other public colleges.

Results surprising

Michael Keller, the commission's research director and author of the report, said that result surprised him.

But higher-education secretary Calvin W. Burnett and commission Chairman Kevin M. O'Keefe said the analysis would have to take into consideration additional variables -- such as students' family income and high school grade averages -- before they would be comfortable drawing any conclusions.

Keller's report looked at the percentage of undergraduates who started college in 1999 and graduated within six years, as well as second-year retention rates of students who matriculated in 2004.

Only students who enrolled in college directly after high school were studied. That group represents about two-thirds of all Maryland full-time students at four-year institutions, said Keller.

3 groups studied

Keller split the students into three groups.

Seventy-four percent of those whose combined math and verbal SATs were 1100 and above earned a degree within six years, compared with 57 percent of those with scores between 800 and 1099, and 44 percent of those scoring less than 800.

The students analyzed entered college before the recent addition of an SAT writing test, so a perfect score -- on the math and verbal sections combined -- was 1600.

Retention rates followed the same pattern. With few exceptions, the direct correlation between SAT score and student "persistence" held at the 10 four-year institutions studied.

Salisbury officials said yesterday that while they agreed that the SAT was a good predictor of college success, they believed high school grades and the rigor of a high school curriculum were better predictors.

"We never negated the value of the SAT as one tool in the toolbox," said Ellen Neufeldt, Salisbury's vice president of student affairs.

Salisbury makes the SAT optional only for prospective freshmen whose high school grade average on a 4.0 scale is 3.5 or better.

Arguments remain

The Maryland analysis does not weaken arguments against the SAT, said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, an advocacy group critical of the way standardized tests are used.

"It's well known and nobody has ever denied that there is a relationship between SAT scores and persistence, on average," Schaeffer said. "Indeed, there is the same relationship with retention and outcomes based on grades and based on family income. The point is that SAT scores add little useful information, and in some cases contradictory information."

A spokeswoman for the College Board, the New York-based nonprofit that administers the test, said the SAT is prized by colleges because it is a standard measure and not subject to variability among high school grading practices.

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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