/ Smaller Delta = Better Education

Smaller Delta = Better Education

UT Austin found that score submitting students had, on average, a .86 higher GPA in college than non-submitting students. The Opportunity Insights study also found a significant, though smaller, relationship between SAT/ACT scores and college GPA (but much larger than the relationship between high school GPA and college GPA)

There have been two common rebuttals from anti-test crusaders:

The Intransigent Data-Denier

Rebuttal: “The magnitude of the relationship between SAT/ACT scores is greater than even the test makers found.”

There is great irony in this rebuttal because it’s really no rebuttal at all: these same anti-test crusaders previously said that you couldn’t trust the purported relationship between SAT/ACT scores and college grades because the test makers were the ones who found the relationship. So there is no consistency now in saying that a stronger relationship found by a completely independent third party should be invalidated simply because they show a stronger relationship, especially since grade inflation has eroded the predictive capacity of high school grades, so it only makes sense that, in comparison, a standardized measure would gain in its comparative predictive capacity simply because it hasn’t declined as well. The only way for this rebuttal to make any sense is if the anti-test crusader believes beyond a reasonable doubt that the test makers must have been wrong in their assessment, and thus, de facto, any similar or stronger result is similarly wrong. But this rebuttal is, of course, wholly unreasonable. It is based on a simple premise: refusing to believe credible research simply because they do not want to believe it.

Who Cares?

Rebuttal: “Who cares about such small differences in college GPA? The juice of modestly better-performing students is not worth the squeeze of the tests.”

These critics are hardly credible given that they want to dismiss the importance of educational excellence. If you prioritize educational excellence (which you should if you’re an institution of higher ed), then you should want to admit students who are the best equipped to succeed at your given institution. If a student is less equipped to succeed at your institution, then there is a better institution out there for them at which they will be a better fit and better succeed.

But it’s not just about that student. It’s all about all the other students: the smaller the variance between the academic preparedness of the highest and lowest-performing students, the better all of their outcomes are.

All teachers know this. But, for the doubters, check out the Air Force Academy study which found that when low performers are paired in the same squadron as high performers, the low performers do even worse than before. And when all the middle performers are paired together? They do even better. Again, smaller variance, better results. Here’s why:

  • People compete much harder when the race is close. If someone is losing by a spectacular margin, they have little incentive to even try: they will likely still lose. So when low performers are paired with the highest performers, they see the delta between them and their highest-achieving peers, feel deflated, and do even worse. In contrast, all the middle performers are paired together, they start competing even more fiercely because they all suddenly have a better shot at being the best. For a much longer explanation of the importance of close competition for optimal performance, see “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.”
  • Equally or maybe even more importantly, good teachers teach to the median of a class. When there is a large gap between the highest and lowest performers, then a teacher who teaches to the median of the academic preparedness in a class will not effectively teach the highest or the lowest performers. The larger the gap in skill between the highest and lowest performers, the larger the gap in effective instruction for those highest and lowest performing students.

Small Gap, Big Gains

What teachers can vouch for is that if you want good instruction, then you want to have the smallest delta between the highest and lowest-performing students. This is where college admissions comes in. College admissions officers have the power to help admit students of similar academic preparedness and make the delta between the highest and lowest-performing students as small as possible.

Very oddly, some people in admissions like to doubt the people actually doing the teaching, the actual teachers. Why would people in admissions dictate admission priorities when they are not the ones who have to actually engage with those admitted, do the work of teaching those admitted, etc?

I entreat college admissions folks who do the amazing and incredibly important work of admitting the next generation of students to also realize that they might have something to learn from those who are doing the actual teaching of the admitted students. When admissions is done right, teachers can provide much better instruction.


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