It’s Time to Clear Up the Impending Confusion in UNC Admissions Standards

Ten years ago, the University of North Carolina began raising minimum admission requirements for all schools in the system. Those changes worked, helping to raise retention and graduation rates since their implementation. Thirty-five percent of 2005 freshmen graduated four years later. By 2010, the rate was 41 percent.

But now, it’s important to revisit those requirements. Changes outside the system’s control have rendered them much less effective.

The UNC system currently uses three measurements to determine eligibility for admission to its 16 schools: high school GPA, SAT or ACT score, and high school course requirements. Students must achieve at least a 2.5 GPA, an 800 on the writing and math portions of the SAT, and must pass a predetermined number of English, math, science, social studies, and foreign language courses.

But this year, two of those metrics are changing. The North Carolina State Board of Education is lowering grading standards in all North Carolina high schools, while the College Board is rewriting the SAT to align with Common Core. Both changes are likely to cause confusion in assessing students’ preparedness for college. 

It may be necessary to wait several years to change SAT standards, until there is more information that shows whether the predictive relationship between test scores and college achievement has changed. Until that relationship can be ascertained, admissions personnel are, in essence, flying a bit “blind.”

That makes it crucial that UNC officials adjust admissions standards in accordance with the changes in GPA. Last fall, the North Carolina State Board of Education voted to switch all North Carolina high schools from a 7-point to a 10-point grading scale. Starting with the 2015-16 school year, all high school students will be graded on the new scale.

The changes to the grading scale will widen the range for each letter grade and lower the minimum passing score. Instead of needing a 93 for an A, a student will only need a 90. (See table below.)

New Grading Scale

The change will affect the way GPAs are calculated for transcripts and class ranking. For the UNC system, this means that more North Carolina students will meet the minimum admissions requirement of a 2.5 GPA. Using the old scale, a 2.5 GPA equated to 80.5 percent. Now, it’s 74.5—6 percentage points lower.

At the same time, the College Board is dramatically changing the SAT. Beginning in March 2016, the test will be aligned with the Common Core curriculum standards used in many classrooms across the nation.

One significant change is to the vocabulary portion of the test. Rather than test students’ knowledge of difficult, lesser-used words with no contextual clues, the focus will be on “high-utility words” that are used across disciplines. And instead of standing alone, they’ll be used in a sentence or passage.

U.S. News reported, “For example, after reading a selection about population density that uses the word ‘intense,’ test-takers might be asked which word has the closest meaning: ‘emotional,’ ‘concentrated,’ ‘brilliant’ or ‘determined.’” Because of this new focus on ‘usable’ words, Greek and Latin roots will no longer be an important item for SAT test prep.

On the math side, logic-based puzzle problems will be replaced with material that students are expected to encounter in class. And the guessing penalty—the subtraction of points for wrong answers—will also be eliminated.

It’s unclear, based on early reports, whether this test can be considered harder or easier than past versions of the standardized test.

But it’s certain that these two changes, coming at the same time, pose a significant problem for university admissions officers. Identifying prepared, talented applicants will be much more difficult without the reliable, consistent metrics that universities relied upon in the past.

We already know that students with poor GPAs graduate at significantly lower rates than those who performed well in high school. As Jay Schalin and I showed recently, schools in the system that accept less-prepared students have 6-year graduation rates of under 50 percent. At Fayetteville State University, where entering freshmen have an average weighted GPA of 2.95, the 6-year rate is just 39.7 percent. By contrast, more than 90 percent of UNC-Chapel Hill’s students graduate in 6 years. There, the average weighted GPA of entering freshmen is 4.56.

The School Board’s decision to convert high school GPAs to a 10-point scale will exacerbate this problem unless the UNC system moves to address it.

Changes to the SAT are also problematic for universities. The current test is designed to discover innate abilities. The new test will measure, at least to some extent, how well a student’s school (or test prep program) adheres to the Common Core curriculum. In other words, universities will no longer have a tool to find potentially bright but overlooked or underserved students.

Admissions personnel will also have less evidence with which to compare different schools—a B student at one school may actually have outperformed an A student at another, and standardized tests provide a way to make a more objective comparison.

This is further complicated by North Carolina’s uncertain future regarding Common Core. A review commission set up by the General Assembly is currently deciding whether to revise or replace the Common Core standards. 

Because of these two changes, it’s imperative that UNC raise its minimum admission standards. Raising the minimum required GPA to 3.0 for all 16 UNC institutions would preserve academic quality in the system and provide a clear, consistent standard for admissions officers to apply to incoming students.