Study Finds High School Grades More Predictive of Students’ College Academic Performance Than Standardized Tests

May 2016

A REL Northwest study of developmental education (remedial, noncredit bearing courses) and college readiness of first-time students at the University of Alaska found that high school grade point average (GPA) was more predictive of students’ success in college English and math courses than SAT, ACT, or ACCUPLACER scores. The study also sheds light on which student groups at the University of Alaska have the highest developmental education placement rates and may benefit from college readiness resources and programs at the high school or college level.

“Developmental education rates help us understand the proportion of students considered underprepared for college coursework,” said Michelle Hodara, lead author of the study. “However, considering developmental education slows student progression toward a degree, we must continue to look closely at the methods used to place students in these courses as some may not actually need to take remedial coursework.”

The study examined first-time students who enrolled in the University of Alaska system from fall 2008 to spring 2012. Across all three universities, developmental education placement rates were higher in math than in English, with more than half of students placing into developmental math and nearly one third in developmental English. Among students pursuing a bachelor’s degree, developmental education placement rates in English were highest for Alaska Native students from rural areas. Black students from urban areas had the highest developmental education placement rates in math.

Less than half of fall 2008 University of Alaska students pursuing bachelor’s degrees who were placed and enrolled in developmental education eventually passed a college math or English course within four years. Among students who were placed in developmental education but instead chose to take credit-bearing English and math courses, 60 percent passed those courses.

“Students who avoid their developmental education referral and enroll and succeed in college coursework represent a group of students who may have been misplaced in developmental education,” said Hodara. “Evidence from other states finds that traditional assessment and placement methods lead to the placement of some students in developmental education who could have succeeded in college coursework.”

REL Northwest also found high school GPA consistently had the most positive and significant relationship with students’ college course success. Specifically, a “one-unit” increase in high school GPA (i.e. an increase from a 2.0 to 3.0) increases a student’s likelihood of earning a C or higher by 25–29 percentage points in college English and 27–33 percentage points in college math. Colleges and university systems working to improve college completion rates are reexamining their placement policies and looking at including high school grades or GPA’s as a predictor of college readiness in addition to placement test scores. Research says that maintaining a high school GPA of 3.0 or higher is predictive of on-time postsecondary completion.

“High school GPA may be a useful additional tool to help make more holistic course placement decisions because it contains unique and valid information about students’ likelihood of doing well in college courses that is not captured by standardized test scores alone, such as motivation and academic tenacity,” explained Hodara.

Findings from the study have several implications for stakeholders seeking to support college readiness, more accurately place students in appropriate courses, broaden access to college coursework, and improve the college success of all students. This study adds to the growing body of research that indicates high school GPA should be considered as part of the placement process.

The full report, Developmental Education and college readiness at the University of Alaska, is available through the Institute of Education Sciences website