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More biomedical science graduate programs are eliminating the requirement of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). The most recent program to join this movement was the Program in Biomedical Sciences (PIBS) at the University of Michigan, who announced that effective 2018 they would be dropping the GRE scores due to their poor ability to predict a student’s success in graduate school.

The GRE is a standardized test administered by the Educational Testing Services (ETS) for students who want to enter graduate school or business school.  The exam consists of three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing, and lasts 3 hours and 45 minutes. The University of Michigan recently published a white paper with a series of “Arguments Against Using GRE Scores for Graduate Admission.” They mentioned that because admission committees are busy, the GRE scores, which are a number and are easy to sort, became popular as a quantitative measure of “merit.” However, the shortcut comes with the assumption that the exam measures relevant metrics, does not introduce bias, and that all students have equal access to information and preparation for the test. Many peer-reviewed studies, as well as faculty and admissions committees have come to the conclusion that these assumptions are not true, thus the GRE is not a good predictor of success in graduate school.

The Problem with Standardized Tests

GRE scores at best can only predict grades for first-year graduate classes since the quantitative skills tested in the GRE do not pass the high school level. The Michigan paper suggests that undergraduate math grades and grade point average (GPA) would be better predictors of student success in graduate school. Two recent studies published in PLOS One reinforce the weaknesses of the GRE:  

  • In a study conducted by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill,  the authors concluded “Our findings indicate that qualitative assessments in recommendation letters are valuable in predicting which students will be most or least productive in biomedical PhD programs.”
  • Another study by Vanderbilt also showed that GRE scores can at most only predict coursework performance but do not give information to predict student success in graduate school.

In addition, the GRE tends to disfavor women, underrepresented minority groups in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) disciplines, and students from low-socioeconomic status families. First, this test is not easily affordable. Besides the $205 fee to take the exam, students must pay $27 to send their scores to more than four universities. Successful test takers often prepare using ETS official books ($40-$72), mobile apps ($4.99), prep courses (starting at $699), and other resources. Second, the GRE is generally offered in larger metropolitan areas, adding travel costs for those who live in rural places. In addition, ETS charges an additional $150 to only show the highest cumulative score, thus students who can pay for it have better chances of getting into graduate school. In the end, it comes down to how much money a student can spend to “learn” how to take a test, and to hide lower scores.

GRE scores can negatively impact those who do not speak English as their first language, because of their limited vocabulary. Many studies show that there is a high correlation between vocabulary and reasoning, since word meanings are inferred from the context they are embedded. It might be hard to infer the meaning of a word if you have a different culture, background and language.

According to many studies and data collected from ETS, the standardized test scores differ significantly between men and women. In a study led by Stricker and Bejar, women experienced a higher level of anxiety when taking a standardized test compared to men, affecting their test performance and scores. Other factors known to influence gender differences in standardized test performance are “stereotype threat,” defined as the risk of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s group, difficulty of items, and test content.

These factors are true for other standardized tests required to enter other programs too. At the undergraduate level, Hampshire College stopped requiring the American College Testing (ACT) and Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores in 2014 after noticing that they were not good predictors of their student’s success and are biased against low-socioeconomic status students. In September 2016, Dean Meredith Twombly reported that as a result of dropping the ACT and SAT scores, the new incoming classes were more racially diverse, had more first-generation students to attend college in their families and had a higher retention of first-year students. Twombly noted that even though the number of applicants diminished, the quality of applications went up because all the other application components were read in detail and valued in the admissions decision.

Dropping Standardized Tests

More universities should be encouraged to drop standard test requirements. Other application components can give as much, if not more information as the GRE, it will save the student a couple of hundred dollars, and it will not introduce bias against women, underrepresented groups, and students from low-socioeconomic status backgrounds.  Alongside the University of Michigan, graduate schools at Purdue and George Washington have dropped the standardized test requirements.

For many students, applying to graduate school is a sacrifice, which has been romanticized as a “personal investment” that will pay off later on. Applying to graduate school is not that different from being a small-business owner, you in-debt yourself to “invest” in a future that can be easily crushed by politics, injustices and ulterior motives. To be successful in graduate school, students need more than good grades, no matter the field of study. A student needs to develop critical thinking skills, be able to communicate with peers, and most importantly, be motivated, persistent and show leadership. These qualities are not measured by the GRE or any standardized test, and graduate schools’ admission committees should not demand or even take them into account when revising applications and making offers.

Efforts to increase minority groups in higher education and in biomedical sciences are not going to be successful if universities keep using standardized exams as a cutoff to accept and or reject students. This issue is not about accepting under-qualified people to satisfy a social agenda, but realizing that the current benchmark does not give a chance to individuals that are not men, white, and privileged. You would not use a 12-inch hard ruler to measure the length, circumference, and weight of a grape because the ruler is not the best tool to equally measure and characterize the object. Thus, why use one poor tool to measure the potential and success of students in graduate school if we have an array of great tools that can give more accurate measurements. The Holistic Review consists of assessing applicants as a whole, looking at all application components equally, rather than just by a number that is accepted or excluded from the review process. The remaining challenge is for universities to change their current review process to be more holistic.

Written by Valery Lozada for the Milwaukee Area Science Advocates

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