A fascinating piece from Inside Higher Ed points to challenges and changes to assessing the academic preparedness of college applicants.
Some parts of particular interest:
- John Latting, Emory’s dean of admission and assistant vice provost for undergraduate enrollment, says, “We’re not as trusting, frankly, of GPA these days. Students are trying their hardest… but grades are definitely inflated and not as connected to true class performance as they used to be.”
- Emory’s admission office is “weighing ‘external assessment’ more heavily than GPA, with a particular focus on AP scores.”
- Latting also says, “While the lack of a score doesn’t raise immediate alarm, this year Emory admissions officers will be able to contact students who don’t submit an SAT or ACT score and encourage them to submit some piece of classwork they feel is representative of their academic interest and competency… We’re hoping that can give us more confidence to really lean into those applications and trust we’re making a good choice. We just want to be able to fill in some blanks.”
Let’s dive into the implications.
John Latting (and pretty much everyone in education) recognizes the worrying trend: rampant grade inflation.
To summarize the graph:
- In 1966, roughly 20% of students going to 4-year BA granting universities had A-averages; 80% did not.
- In 2022, roughly 80% of these students had A-averages; only about 20% did not.
Rising GPAs are not inherently bad: what if students are just more academically prepared?
But that is not what’s happening.
Every standardized measure of academic preparedness has shown a historic decline.
Grades do not mean what they used to mean, and college admissions officers recognize that fact.
Weighing External Assessment
Even though Emory is test-optional, Latting is saying the quiet part out loud: external assessments (i.e. standardized test scores) matter. Not only do they matter, according to Latting, Emory will be weighing external assessment more heavily than GPA. I have actually never heard that from any college, ever. Standardized test scores have always improved assessing an applicant’s academic achievement, but grades have always still been the best indicator. Latting is telling us that will no longer be the case. That’s quite the statement. He and his team must be quite disillusioned about how accurately a GPA can allow them to compare the academic achievement of students from very varied contexts.
And Latting points to Emory’s new focus: not just any external assessments, but AP scores. That is also fascinating given that AP exam scores have historically been used primarily for college credit and not greatly for admissions decisions (more info on how colleges use AP exam scores can be found here).
But, in an SAT/ACT optional environment in which grades are rampantly inflated, Emory’s admissions department is evidently looking for new, standardized ways of assessing academic achievement.
Filling In Blanks
For three years, most colleges bent over backward to say that all applicants, with or without scores, are evaluated equally.
That was, of course, false. Students with stellar scores always gained an advantage, so, no, students were not evaluated equally irrespective of scores.
But Latting has the integrity to be transparent and again say the quiet part out loud. When an applicant doesn’t submit an SAT or ACT score, that can leave a question mark in the application.
Granted, most of this (grade inflation, giving more weight to external assessments, or the uncertainty that can surround an application without a standardized test score) is not surprising. What is surprising is that a dean of admissions was so honest. I wish more colleges were similarly transparent.
The changes that Emory is making to its college admissions process also reflect what we are seeing nationwide: a reversion back to using standardized test scores more heavily in college admissions.
The first colleges to quickly go back have been the large public universities: they don’t have the time to dive deeply into the high school of each applicant and see what the average GPA and SAT/ACT score at that high school are, if the student took every available AP class, etc. For them, an SAT/ACT score is a quicker approximation of academic achievement than trying to ascertain how rigorous an applicant’s high school is and how well the student likely did relative to their peers there.
In fact, many public universities have higher SAT/ACT submission rates than higher-ranked private colleges (we put together all the SAT/ACT score submission data for the top-ranked 100 colleges here if you’re interested in taking a look).
Why are colleges so stubbornly clinging to using SAT and ACT scores in admissions? For one, they are left with little choice when grades are so inflated (not to mention the fact that students took different courses, from different teachers, at one of over 20,000 different high schools in the U.S. that uses one of the many different high school GPA grading scales — so how else can they even somewhat accurately compare between applicants to see who is best prepared?). But, two, the preponderance of evidence covering decades of research and millions of students shows that SAT and ACT scores help colleges assess which students are most academically prepared to succeed at their institution. In fact, the relationship between SAT/ACT scores and success in college is one of the most well-established relationships in all of the social sciences (p.17 of “Measuring Success”, which is the largest ever aggregation of research on the use of college entrance exams).
The predictive capacity of SAT and ACT scores is quite surprising to most people. Aren’t these tests highly gameable? No, they’re really not. Consider this: only 6.8% of students whose parental income is in the top .1% have SAT scores of 1500 or above (p.88). If the tests were so gameable, we would expect 90+% of these students to have 1500+ SAT scores. Instead, 93.2% of them score below a 1500. The SAT and ACT are academic barriers to all students.
Can students overcome these barriers and increase their scores on the tests? Yes, absolutely. But barely from tips/tricks alone. In order to substantially improve on these exams, it takes a lot of hard work. Students have to legitimately become better students and gain knowledge and skills in grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, reading, and data analysis. That’s a vast amount of content to simultaneously improve upon. That’s why substantial increases are difficult and time-consuming — but achievable (like most things in life) with sufficient effort.
Is the effort worth the outcome? All students benefit academically from tutoring that improves their knowledge and skills in the core subject areas tested on the SAT and ACT (if a student has a very low score, then the tests are likely correctly identifying areas of academic weakness that the student needs to fix). Can a student with good grades still get accepted to a good college if they don’t have a good test score? Likely, yes. But, in practice even if colleges are still listed as “test-optional,” many of the best public and top-ranked private universities are returning quite quickly to effectively requiring SAT and ACT scores for admissions. For the most ambitious students, stellar test scores are no longer just about an advantage in selective admissions but again increasingly viewed as prerequisites to getting accepted.