How to get more out of grades and test scores to help high school graduates

K12 guidance counselors and college admissions officers are urged to consider the school, neighborhood and family resources available to students.

Grades and test scores in high school can be signals of college success—as long as they are considered in the proper context, a new report contends.

K12 guidance counselors and college admissions officers are urged to also consider the levels of school, neighborhood, and family resources available to students, say the authors of the American Educational Research Association’s “Contextualized High School Performance.” The findings are particularly relevant in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to ban race-conscious admissions in higher education institutions, the researchers assert.

“Contextualizing high school grades and test scores may allow institutions to identify students from diverse backgrounds with strong academic achievement who will graduate,” said Michael Bastedo, one of the authors and the associate dean of research and graduate studies at the University of Michigan’s Marsal Family School of Education. “Not only is it a legally permissible way for institutions to promote equity, it also helps admissions officers identify students who are very likely to succeed.”

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The researchers zeroed in on an unnamed Midwestern state and analyzed data from all 2.3 million public high school students, the state’s ACT test database and its 15 public universities. To look for context, the researchers examined academic, programmatic and social disparities among high schools.

Not surprisingly, they found a substantial gap in home values, which provided some schools and districts with far higher property tax revenues. This has a significant impact on both the classes and extracurricular activities that schools can offer their students. The latter disparity provides graduates with fewer opportunities to distinguish themselves in the eyes of college admissions officers.

Students in under-resourced schools must also contend with larger class sizes, which means teachers can provide less assistance with assignments and homework. These students also have more limited access to college counselors. More affluent, predominantly white schools, on the other hand, have developed strong networks with elite colleges and universities that may tilt admissions decisions in favor of their students, the researchers point out.

Getting more out of grades and test scores

Only a minority of colleges—primarily selective institutions—are conducting “contextualized reviews” of grades and test scores. In the Midwestern state that the researchers analyzed, they found that contextualized grades were linked to greater college success than were contextualized test scores, though both had a significant impact.

In a University of Colorado study, researchers found that more low-income and underrepresented students gained admission when levels of socioeconomic disadvantage were considered along with academic achievement. Another study found that underrepresented students were more likely to be admitted to a college that compared their standardized test scores to peers from the same high school.

The College Board launched its Landscape dashboard in 2019 to help higher ed institutions conduct more contextualized reviews of applications. The service has standardized indicators of a student’s high school and neighborhood contexts. Dozens of institutions piloting Landscape admitted but did not enroll more low-income students, studies have found.

Class rank was seen as another way for college admissions teams to view students’ achievement in the context of their environment, but many schools are increasingly abandoning the practice to reduce anxiety caused by academic competition and to discourage students from taking advanced classes only to boost their grade-point averages.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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