A recent study by ACT, the nonprofit producers of the popular college entrance exam, documents inflationary increases in grade point averages over the past decade. The implication is that GPAs may not be an accurate reflection of students’ actual performance. Of course, GPAs also receive criticism on other fronts. Some people point to variations in the levels of rigor and expectations from school to school. Still others complain that GPAs are difficult to understand because some schools offer additional grade weights and multipliers for honors and advanced placement courses. Others argue that comparing GPAs ignores the level and challenging nature of courses one students takes versus another.
Certainly, these criticisms have merit, but do they mean that GPAs have no value and do not reflect the achievement and potential of students? Quite the opposite. A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago reinforces the importance of GPAs and their ability to predict subsequent success in college. The study involved more than 55,000 students who enrolled directly into college following graduation from high schools in Chicago.
Despite the inflationary trends and criticism, the study found GPAs to be five times more accurate at predicting success in college than the ACT. The findings are particularly interesting considering the criticism leveled against GPA inflation comes from ACT. Importantly, the results were consistent across schools that have histories of high performance and schools that have traditionally posted low test scores. Additionally, the researchers found no correlation between ACT scores and later college graduation at some colleges and universities and even a negative correlation at others.
The research calls into question the generally held assumption that standardized tests such as the ACT are objective, reliable, and neutral predictors of college success. The findings seem exceptionally important in light of the traditional weight given to college entrance exams and the time, attention, expense, and stress associated with preparing for and taking these exams.
It’s true that college admissions typically take additional factors into account when making admissions decisions. Yet, this information appears to validate the growing number of colleges and universities that have decided to make college entrance exams optional or have eliminated them in the admissions process.
So, why might it be that GPAs have much stronger predictive power than college entrance exams such as the ACT? The reasons are fairly obvious. Despite the shortcomings of GPAs, they capture a variety of elements that correlate closely with academic success. GPAs reflect effort, consistency, and performance related to a variety of learning-related activities. GPAs reflect learning in a variety of settings. They include multiple academic and non-academic courses. Equally important, GPAs capture performance over time, not in a single testing setting.
The bottom line: The current movement to rethink our dependence on standardized exams as a driving factor in college entrance decisions makes sense. The stress, expense, and time demanded to prepare for and take these exams appear to outweigh any benefits on which we can depend. When we have evidence that other collectible information provides a better picture and makes a stronger predication, it’s time to change.