Non-Cognitive Qualities Join the GRE

May 22, 2008

A major criticism of standardized testing is that it typically fails to measure non-cognitive qualities. The Educational Testing Service, one of the major producers of standardized tests, is acknowledging this concern -- and has decided after years of pilot projects and research to add a new, non-cognitive portion to the Graduate Record Exam, which is taken by 600,000 students a year, including most future Ph.D.'s.

The GRE board and ETS have now agreed to start using the “Personal Potential Index," and it will be a part of every general GRE starting in July 2009. While applicants to graduate programs that do not require the GRE may purchase the index separately, it will be bundled with the GRE such that everyone who needs to take that test -- which is fairly standard in graduate admissions -- will have access to the index. The addition may not only point to talents that applicants may be unable to demonstrate through GRE scores or college grades, it may encourage changes in the way faculty members write and consider evaluations.

In the index, three or four professors or supervisors -- generally those who will also be writing letters of recommendation -- will answer a series of questions about candidates’ non-cognitive skills in various areas, as well as a more general set of questions. Applicants will be rated on a scale of 1-5 on questions about their abilities in these six areas: knowledge and creativity, communication skills, team work, resilience, planning and organization, and ethics and integrity. Those filling out the forms would also be able to provide narrative answers on each of those areas.

While ETS and GRE officials have been talking about the idea of moving ahead with the index for several years, the formal decision to add the index is a sensitive one. Many of the strongest proponents of adding non-cognitive measures to the admissions process are strong critics of standardized testing in general. So in some sense, ETS is embracing ideas advocated by those who spend considerable time bashing ETS. Further, some faculty members are sensitive about the idea that their letters of recommendation might not already be the best tool for evaluating applicants' personal qualities. ETS officials have been careful not to offend or burden professors, stressing that it would take about 15 minutes to complete an index, and changing the name of the index from its original moniker, the "Standardized Letter of Recommendation."

ETS and the GRE have also made one significant change, based on pilot testing of the index. The original plans also called for those professors filling out the index to indicate whether they thought the applicants were suitable for the program they were applying to enter. David G. Payne, associate vice president of ETS for college and graduate programs, said that question was dropped because many of those doing the index may not know enough about the programs students are applying to, and out of concern that the question might hurt disadvantaged applicants who may in fact be better fits in graduate programs than people realize.

That is, of course, the premise behind the index. Payne said that once graduate schools use the index for a few years, and watch the performance of students who are admitted, long-held assumptions might change. For instance, graduate admissions committees that previously assumed that applicants needed a certain GRE score or a certain college grade-point average might find that students with lesser numerical scores but high ratings for resilience or creativity perform better in graduate school. If such findings are made, Payne said, graduate schools might find themselves more comfortable offering admission to a broader range of applicants.

That, Payne said, would benefit both graduate schools and those who want to enroll. "The board feels so strongly that including non-cognitive measures in graduate school admissions is needed," he said. "We hope schools will see value in it and applicants will"

The PPI, as the index is known, may also appear on other tests. Payne said that ETS is in discussions with groups he identified only as "higher education organizations that provide information regarding student abilities" about using the PPI or the concept in conjunction with other tests.

ETS will not require the PPI to be used and applicants will decide -- if the graduate programs to which they are applying don't require it -- whether to have professors fill it out. Payne said that in the first year it is used, ETS would be happy if 30-40 percent of GRE test-takers use the PPI. But Payne said that ETS is confident, based on extensive discussions with graduate officials, that the percentage will go up quickly, and could hit 90 percent.

Carol Lynch, a senior scholar at the Council of Graduate Schools and a member of the GRE board, said interest in PPI is high in part because of heightened activity by the graduate school group and others to identify the factors that help students finish doctoral or other graduate programs. In many cases, she said, graduate deans are finding that "the things that make for success are not just raw academic credentials."

Payne said that the price of the GRE would increase "modestly" to cover expenses related to the PPI. Currently, the GRE costs $140 in the United States and $170 elsewhere. While final pricing has not been set, Payne said it would probably amount to an increase in the range of $10-15.

Historically, when major admissions tests add significant portions (such as the writing test for the SAT and the ACT), many applicants try to take the exam before the changes -- or spend a lot of time on strategy for the revised exam. Payne said that ETS planned significant outreach to prospective graduate students and deans about the changes, in an effort to minimize anxiety. He stressed that the people who would fill out the PPI are the same professors students would already be approaching for letters of recommendation.

Michael Sullivan, director of Project 1000, a national program based at Arizona State University to help underrepresented minority students be admitted to graduate school, said he sees anecdotal evidence that PPI could "revolutionize" the way professors provide information to admissions committees. ETS has offered the PPI to Project 1000 participants.

Sullivan said many of these students are "very smart and very creative" and will succeed in graduate school, despite GRE scores that are below the averages for the programs to which they are applying. Frequently, he said, this is because English is not the students' first language. Project 1000 offers assistance to these grad school applicants in many ways, so Sullivan said he couldn't be sure of the impact of the PPI alone, but said that participants are doing "very well in admissions," in part because of efforts like PPI that make the applicants "more than a GRE score."

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a frequent critic of ETS, said that with the testing service's new initiatives, "it is difficult to differentiate between genuine attempts to improve the admissions process and calculated efforts to sell more products." But he said that the PPI may have "elements of both motives." He noted that ETS is trying to gain testing business and that any new feature -- particularly one that answers critics of testing -- could be helpful. ETS officials acknowledge that the PPI is part of their pitch to attract more business schools to the GRE -- a major goal of ETS, and one on which it appears to be making some headway, since it lost the contract for the Graduate Management Admission Test.

But whatever the motives, Schaeffer said that adding the PPI was a real shift. "Unquestionably, it adds a non-test component to the graduate admissions process," he said.



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