Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Do SATs predict college graduation?

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Peter Salins, former provost of the State University of New York (SUNY), Stony Brook, argues that while it may be fashionable to downgrade the importance of SATs in selecting college students, a recent quasi-experiment in his university system indicates that higher SAT scores do indeed predict higher graduation rates. This finding is based on comparing the relative changes in graduation rates between SUNY campuses that raised SAT scores for admission to those that did not (See related link to the left). The benefit of this comparison is that it held constant the other competing predictor of student success, GPA. The graduation rates at the more selective SUNY campuses soared relative to the less selective campuses. The findings suggest that, as a self-selection variable, SAT scores are one way that administrators can choose the most likely students to graduate.

Fair enough, but this conclusion raises troubling questions for me about the goal of post-secondary education: Is it ultimately designed for a self-selected group of students who can survive, in Darwinian fashion, all manner of instruction? As a mother who has just helped both of my sons "prep" for the SAT, I had the opportunity to observe the level of "teaching to the test" that is involved in attaining higher scores. Perhaps the latent variable here that links SAT performance to graduation is little more than the willingness to engage in focused and repetitive practice for tests. To be sure, much of post-secondary education requires little more that: Sheer persistence. Taking this notion a step further, it has become commonplace to hear how a college education "predicts" higher salaries in life. I wonder. I am unfamiliar with the studies underlying these claims, but I suspect, they are grounded in correlation, which is not the same as identifying causation. It may be that something else is at work here. Perhaps the same tenacity and persistence that permits one to engage in grueling SAT prep and all manner of college classes--including the most inconsiderate and Darwinian--might truly predict success in life, perhaps even more than a college education.

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