A new study shows that acing the SAT or ACT demonstrates cognitive ability, but succeeding in multiple classes goes beyond academics.

By Rebecca Macatee
Helen Cortez/EyeEm/Getty Images

May 9, 2019

When it comes to getting into college, we talk about lot about kids' SAT and ACT scores. But according to a new study published in the American Educational Research Journal, these standardized test scores don't indicate whether or not a student is likely to graduate from college as much as their high school grades do.

A team of researchers led by Brian Galla, an assistant professor of psychology in education at the University of Pittsburgh, argued that success in college requires not only cognitive ability but also "self-regulatory competencies" (think self-control and perseverance). Those are better indicated by high school grades than standardized test scores.

For part of the study, the researchers looked at more than 47,300 students who applied to college for the 2009/2010 academic year. Per Education Week, the study showed that a little more than 39 percent of the students sampled completed their college degree in four years. And the data confirmed, "high school grades out-predicted test scores" when it came to who would earn their degree in a four-year window.

It makes sense, too: While many students do take courses to prepare for the SAT or ACT, the test itself only requires a few hours of focus. These test scores are a good indicator of cognitive ability, the research shows, but getting good grades throughout high school requires more long-term focus and self-discipline.

As the researchers put it, getting good grades in school reveals a lot about a student's "capacity to resist momentary temptations, regulate emotions, and sustain effort across days, months, and years in pursuit of important goals."

Not surprisingly, having that ability to self-regulate and self-motivate fares well for students in college, too.

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