It’s a new year, launching another new and notoriously nerve-wracking season of college admissions testing. High school juniors are hoping they’ll dazzle admissions officers with their smarts, savvy, and content mastery, but what will their test scores really demonstrate? Does a high ACT or SAT score reveal readiness for college rigor, or does it merely confer bragging rights and a better shot at admission?

The mother of a high school junior who’s about to begin testing, I’m keenly interested in the answer. My oldest child graduated from high school in 2015, and I know some things — the toil and tedium of test prep and the heart palpitations that accompany reading a score report — remain the same. But other things have changed — a new SAT launched in 2016 with a raft of revisions, the ACT cemented its status as titan of tests. 

Score stakes are also higher than ever. ACT and SAT performance not only figures prominently in college admission decisions and rankings but in recent years has become part of states’ accountability programs. At least 25 states now require public schools to administer the ACT or SAT to students in 11th grade, according to Education Week. North Carolina is one of them, and in 2012-13 began requiring all public high school juniors to take the ACT. The percentage of students attaining the UNC system’s minimum composite score for admission is factored into schools’ performance grades.  

Clearly, these tests provide valuable feedback on students’ skills and readiness for college work. Research does reveal test performance is linked with college GPA. Still, some things matter more. A substantial body of evidence shows high school GPA is far more predictive of college success than test scores. The most important GPA may be one many ignore — the ninth-grade GPA.

A recently released longitudinal study from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, evaluating more than 187,000 students, shows ninth-grade GPA is a highly sensitive “signal” of numerous later academic outcomes. Ninth-grade GPA is not only predictive of 11thgrade GPA but also the likelihood of high school graduation and enrollment and persistence in college.

This Chicago study builds on earlier research from William Hiss, former dean of admissions at Bates College, evaluating test-optional admissions policies at 33 institutions. Hiss found no significant difference between the college GPAs of students who submitted scores and students who did not. Moreover, college GPA was strongly aligned with high school GPA —even when test scores varied. It’s common sense. Students who worked hard and earned good grades but less stellar test scores outperformed lower-achieving students who dazzled on test day. Effort and persistence do matter.

All of this means there’s good reason to intervene early if students falter during high school’s freshman year. Years ago, the Chicago Consortium developed a freshman “on-track” indicator, based on students’ course credits and grades, that highlights the need for intervention. School districts using the indicator found it to be a powerful predictor of later graduation. The consortium suggests parents and teachers keep a close eye on that freshman first semester, pushing for monitoring, mentoring, and more individualized attention when warranted.

Stressed-out students seeking solace will find myriad tips online for ACT and SAT success. Plan ahead! Practice! Relax! But the best advice is this: Work hard in high school. Tackle difficult subjects and master them with persistence. Students can’t bubble in grit, tenacity, or an impressive work ethic on test answer sheets. But such traits ensure students stay the course — long after those answer sheets have left the building.

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.