High School Grades Better Predictors of College Graduation

University Testing

FairTest Examiner, November 2009

A recently published book adds important evidence to the debate about the impact of SAT and ACT scores at large schools, many of which have resisted investing in test-optional admissions because of the volume of applications they receive each year.

Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities, coauthored by William Bowen, president emeritus of Princeton University and the Andrew Mellon Foundation, Michael McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation and former president of Macalester College, and Matthew Chingos, a Mellon Foundation research associate, finds:

  • “High school grades are a far better incremental predictor of graduation rates than are standard SAT/ACT test scores”;
  • “Overly heavy reliance on SAT/ACT scores in admitting students can have adverse effects on the diversity of the student bodies enrolled by universities”; and
  • “The strong predictive power of high school GPA holds even when we know little or nothing about the quality of the high school attended.”

Though initial media coverage of the book focused on students who “undermatch” by applying to less competitive colleges than they could handle, the conclusions about the weak predictive value of test scores may have a greater long-term impact. Using a massive national database, the authors undermine pervasive myths about the need for standardized tests to create “a level playing field” among applicants from a wide range of high schools. They conclude, “[W]hen test scores do not provide much additional information about likely outcomes, putting heavy weight on them has the (no doubt unintended) effect of given an admissions boost to children from high-SES families with little commensurate gain in expected educational attainment.”

To explain the value of grades, they observe, “We believe that the consistently strong performance of high school GPA as a predictor of graduation rates derives in large part from its value as a measure of motivation, perseverance, work habits, and coping skills, as well as cognitive achievements.”


This research is already encouraging several large universities to review their admissions testing requirements. It also implicitly challenges the one-sided focus on standardized test scores promoted by the federal No Child Left Behind law and many state policies.