First Semester GPA Predicts College Success Better Than Standardized Test Scores

Posted By Eliana Osborn on March 14, 2016 at 11:05 am
First Semester GPA Predicts College Success Better Than Standardized Test Scores

Despite claims by the makers of the ACT and SAT, there may be a better way to forecast college student behavior. New research from the University of Illinois finds underrepresented populations’ graduation rates can be gauged more accurately by grade point average.

Standardized tests have long been criticized for their class and cultural biases. When socioeconomic issues are examined, SAT or ACT scores seem to best measure the wealth of families rather than anything else. In a section of their website focused on policy platforms, ACT says, “With more than 50 years of data to draw upon, ACT research suggests that for far too many individuals—often those from low-income, first-generation, or minority backgrounds—success along the K-career continuum is out of reach.” This acknowledgment doesn’t speak to how effective the test is but does indicate some awareness of educational equality issues.

Susan Gershenfeld and co-author Denise Ward Hood looked at 1,900 University of Illinois students who graduated within six years of enrolling. They found that ACT scores of graduates and those who dropped out were almost identical. 69% of those who started college finished during the time frame, with an average ACT of 24.5. The students who started with this same cohort but didn’t complete their degrees had an ACT of 24.1.

The sample group studied by Gershenfeld was 93% racial minorities, as the study was intended to look at low-income students and those coming from underserved public schools. About 45% of the sample received Pell grants as well.

Gershenfeld explains her findings.  “The freshmen who persisted to graduation had significantly higher first-semester GPAs – 2.84 versus 2.20, respectively – compared with peers who left without earning a degree.” Additionally, freshmen with first-semester GPAs below 2.33 were half as likely to graduate as students who had GPAs over 3.68.

Nearly all students struggle when they first start college, especially those who don’t have a family history of higher education. Those who mishandled that initial semester, earning grades barely above the level of academic probation, appear to have given up the whole college process at a greater rate than others.

Freshman support programs may be even more important than schools previously thought. Gershenfeld says, “Waiting until a student hits a 2.0 GPA or lower may be too late. Freshmen with first-semester GPAs of up to 2.33 should be targeted as particularly vulnerable to attrition.” First-year seminars, mentoring relationships, advisement, and other policies can be better targeted to a larger section of at-risk students with an eye to this newest research.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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