The Measure of Success

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Frustrated by poor student performance in introductory courses they were teaching, University of Oregon physics professors James Schombert and Stephen Hsu wondered if they were missing something in the acronym-driven numbers game—GPA, SAT, GMAT, GRE, ACT—that dominates the college admissions process.

Freshman students with high entrance-exam scores weren’t performing as well as expected, and “we were unable to determine if there was a deficiency in our teaching or in student cognitive abilities,” Schombert explains. “Being good scientists, we began looking for answers.”

Better known for their work studying interstellar phenomena, the researchers ventured into psychometrics—the study of GPA, IQ, and other quantifiable measures of intellect—to analyze the academic records of all undergraduates entering the UO from 2000 to 2004.

They discovered that students with high SAT scores are more likely to perform well in upper-division courses. But to their surprise, they also found that a low SAT score does not necessarily preclude strong performance.

The highest possible SAT score is 1,600—800 for a mathematics section and 800 for a reading section. But “we found that some students with combined SAT scores well below 1,000 achieved in-major, upper-division GPAs in excess of 3.5 [A-minus] and even 4.0,” Schombert explains, terming this group “overachievers.”

The finding suggests poor teaching or a student’s fundamental lack of smarts aren’t necessarily to blame for poor learning. In fact, statistic after statistic indicated that, even with iffy test scores or a so-so high school GPA, “almost any student admitted to a college or university can achieve academic success if they work hard enough,” says Hsu, noting the conventional wisdom has long suggested otherwise.

“Some leading educational researchers have claimed that only the top 10–20 percent of the population are intellectually capable of college-level work,” he explains. “But our data show that, in most subjects, hard work can compensate for below-average cognitive ability.”

Though it may contradict conventional thinking, college admissions experts say the conclusion is both plausible and logical.

“Most definitely, students with lower American College Test (ACT) or SAT scores can compensate through hard work,” says Marna Atkin, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting into Top Colleges.

“I agree with Hsu and Schombert,” explains Christopher Hooker-Haring, dean of admission and financial aid at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “Students can indeed achieve academic success if they work hard enough.”

The physicists present their findings in a paper titled “Data Mining the University: College GPA Predictions from SAT Scores,” currently under review at the psychometric journal, Intelligence.

Although psychometrics is a branch of psychology, physicists have been “poking their noses into other disciplines for a long time,” Hsu quips.

When the space shuttle Challenger exploded, for instance, it wasn’t an aeronautical engineer who discovered what cost seven astronauts their lives, but Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize–winning physicist. “Physicists are good at dealing with data and mathematical models, a skill that has broad applicability to other areas,” Hsu says.

Compared to what Schombert normally studies, examining student admissions data is a cinch. Before he came to the UO in 1996, Schombert was a NASA astronomer who discovered a rare class of galaxies—massive collections of stars in deep space—called “dwarf spirals.” An expert in galactic evolution, he characterized the new intergalactic species through precision observation of billions of stars billions of miles away.

His colleague Hsu could be termed a techno-entrepreneur. After guarding physics department computers against hackers and attackers, Hsu started SafeWeb, a technology company he sold just five years later to cyber security giant Symantec—for $26 million.

With help from venture capitalists in 2005, Hsu founded Robot Genius, a California-based company that fights sophisticated computer threats. Neatly combining company leadership with research and teaching, Hsu has found time to author or coauthor more than 100 papers on cosmology and astrophysics, with such eye-catching titles as “Grand Unification through Gravitational Effects,” and “Black Hole Entropy, Curved Space, and Monsters.”

Physicists not only love to poke their noses into other disciplines, but turn a grand phrase as well.

For every parent wondering where to get the best education without a six-figure pocketbook, or every student worried that hard work isn’t enough without an Ivy League diploma, Hsu—a former Yale professor educated at UC Berkeley and Cal Tech—and the Yale-educated Schombert compared the UO’s publicly funded Clark Honors College (CHC) to far costlier private schools such as Cornell and Yale as part of their study. They found that top students at public universities—Clark Honors College material—are not much different from their Ivy League peers.

Students enter CHC—the oldest four-year honors college at a public university—with a 1,340 average SAT score and 3.9 average high school GPA, making the college’s entrance selectivity “roughly comparable to Cornell or UC Berkeley,” Schombert explains.

The majority of CHC students achieve 3.5 to 4.3 upper division GPAs, while also fulfilling rigorous course requirements beyond their major. “In terms of drive and ambition, Clark students are similar to students at elite universities,” Hsu notes.

Finally, the study shows that CHC students master their subjects as well as graduates of any elite university. That’s no surprise to Clark Honors College dean David Frank. “The Schombert-Hsu study corroborates my experience,” he says. “Students from Harvard, Yale, and Cornell would find the Clark Honors College curriculum rigorous and challenging; likewise, Clark Honors College students would flourish if they attended other elite colleges.”

A frustrating student achievement gap motivating their quest, Schombert and Hsu ironically encountered an almost equally frustrating research achievement gap. “We found standard social science analysis could not answer our questions,” Schombert says. “In psychology, psychometrics, or other fields that would most want the answers we sought, there simply does not exist the ability to do the type of analysis we required,” he explains. “It’s a disconnect between the necessary levels of network, computer, and advanced mathematics skills needed to handle large datasets.”

As physicists often do, “we attacked the problem with our own tools,” Schombert says. Those tools included advanced statistical analysis, high-performance computing, and one especially innovative approach: most colleges and universities try to correlate test scores with incoming freshman GPA—the UO duo instead looked at upper-level (junior and senior) GPA.

“Freshman GPA is not a satisfactory metric of academic success,” Hsu explains. “There is simply too much variation in the difficulty of courses taken by freshmen.” More able freshmen typically take more difficult courses, whereas less able freshmen take introductory courses “not very different from high school classes,” he says. Under these circumstances, academic success—an “A” in an introductory course versus a “B” in an advanced course—becomes too relative to accurately measure. Course variation decreases in later years, as students settle into their respective majors, working hard in required classes.

The new approach bore fruit: SAT and ACT scores, their analysis showed, predict upper-level much better than lower-level college grades, “a significant and entirely new result,” Schombert says. It also helped identify hard-working students who were besting expectations based on their test scores. “We found many ‘overachievers’ with modest SAT scores who nevertheless achieved high upper-division GPAs across a broad variety of majors,” Schombert states.

So what do these discoveries about hard work and academic success mean for students in those introductory courses? Will they be working harder than ever, in light of the physicists’ findings?

“I wish to invoke my Fifth Amendment right,” Schombert answers, tactfully changing the subject. “Lakers over Celtics in game seven.”

—By Mike Martin