Renewed Debate About GRE

University of Pennsylvania philosophy program drops requirement for its doctoral program, setting off broad discussion about the GRE test's merits and drawbacks.

September 17, 2018
 

For years, a standard part of applying to most doctoral and master's programs was submitting scores on the Graduate Record Examination. The test was frequently seen as a crucial part of the application, along with grades earned in college and various other factors. In recent years, GRE has also made inroads in professional degree programs -- first in M.B.A. admissions and more recently in law school admissions.

But the GRE has also been subject to criticism over its role in graduate admissions, with some of the criticism being that the test is used in ways that the Educational Testing Service doesn't encourage (essentially with departments having unofficial minimum scores). While ETS says that the GRE should be one factor considered, critics say that many departments focus on the scores, which they see as a way to raise departmental reputations, even at the cost of diversity. This was a major theme of a 2016 book, Inside Graduate Admissions (Harvard University Press), that was based on observation of admissions reviews at leading programs in a range of disciplines.

Amid this debate, an announcement from the University of Pennsylvania's philosophy program is attracting widespread attention in the discipline and setting off a debate that may well apply to many other disciplines.

Penn philosophy announced (in a post at Leiter Reports and a post on the Daily Nous website) that it won't require the GRE for its doctoral program. Further, the department will not look at the scores of any applicants who send them. (The latter point is significant. Many of the colleges that have dropped requirements that undergraduate applicants submit SAT and ACT scores continue to consider the scores of those who submit, leading to criticism that the colleges are trying to raise their test averages, and don't really doubt the value of the tests.)

The statement from Penn explained the department's rationale.

"Key factors in this decision were, first, that the GRE can be financially burdensome for low-income applicants ($205 for the general test in the USA, only 50% of which is waivable by the ETS, plus the non-waivable $27 per school to send your scores to after four schools) and offer unfair advantages to wealthy applicants (e.g. ETS offers a score review service for an extra fee and Kaplan offers test prep services for a fee that isn't entirely waivable)," the statement said.

"Second, GRE scores do not, in general, accurately predict academic performance in graduate school … Third, significant gaps in GRE performances by women and underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities made it especially difficult for them to be accepted, even though their scores sometimes dramatically underpredicted their academic performances in our program. Fourth, in our judgment, nothing of significant epistemic value was gained by our use of the GRE that we couldn't figure out from looking at transcripts, writing samples, etc. So, women, minorities, and low-income applicants, apply to Penn philosophy! We will not discriminate against you based on an outdated, expensive, biased, and predictively invalid test."

The response at Daily Nous has been intense (and not all from people sharing the same view).

Many praised Penn's philosophy program. One undergraduate wrote: "I'm preparing to apply to programs now to start next year, and the GRE has proved a real distraction and an annoying cost for what's clearly little reward (particularly since the GRE counts for little even at schools that require it). I'd much rather have more time to focus on my writing sample, personal statement, and honors thesis. I'm admittedly very fortunate to be able to afford the cost of the GRE, but as noted above, others are not."

A Clemson faculty member wrote: "Glad to see a department acknowledge (and put into practice) what we all know to be true. The GRE is a scourge and the sooner it is ignored and done away with the better. All it measures is how well you do on it, and not much else."

Others argued that GRE can be an equalizer. One graduate student wrote: that "coming from an undistinguished college where I lacked access to famous letter-writers, I hoped the GRE would be an equalizer for me. (That hope was probably misguided, but that's beside the point.) All that's to say: it's not at all clear to me that, on balance, the GRE confers significant advantages to high-income students, given that (i) high-income students are more likely than low-income students to attend [liberal arts colleges] or well-regarded research schools, which already serve as proxies for excellence; (ii) because high-income students are more likely to attend selective schools, they're more likely to have famous letter-writers; and (iii) if you're applying to 10 or more schools, the cost of the GRE (including the cost of additional test scores) pales in comparison to the cost of applications."

And a faculty member described how the GRE may have made the difference in a career: "Just one small data point: I had somewhat poor grades (in non-philosophy classes) as an undergraduate for a variety of good and bad reasons. I think I had somewhat strong letters from somewhat known people. I also had notably strong GRE scores. My impression is that the scores helped significantly when applying to grad school, since without them the strong letters and the poor grades would have sort of cancelled each other out. I think I was a relatively strong grad student and, in any case, I now have tenure.

"In any case, I totally agree that it would be bizarre to base one's admission decisions on the GRE along, or even to weigh GRE scores very heavily. But I'm not yet convinced that there's anything wrong with using it as an additional bit of evidence: after all, the claims that higher GRE scores are, in fact, weak evidence for higher grades in graduate school. I think a lot hangs on whether minority GRE scores merely sometimes underpredict grad success, or consistently underpredict grad success."

Julie R. Posselt, assistant professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, is the author of Inside Graduate Admissions. She has urged departments to carefully consider whether they need testing, and whether they are using tests appropriately. In an email to Inside Higher Ed, she said that the announcement from Penn's philosophy department was significant.

"The announcement from philosophy Penn is distinctive from those I see from most graduate program making GRE policy changes," Posselt said. "The decision was unanimous, they enthusiastically invite applications from underrepresented groups and --- this is important -- they commit not to looking at scores among those who send them. These three things -- faculty buy-in, real recruitment, and a concrete plan for how applications will be reviewed without GRE scores -- present a stronger foundation for increasing diversity than recommending, but not requiring, submission of test scores."

Education Testing Service (ETS) officials have long said that some departments place too much emphasis on the GRE, counter to the advice departments receive from ETS.

But ETS also maintains that throwing out the GRE is a bad idea.

David G. Payne, vice president and chief operating officer of the ETS global educational division, said via email that the GRE promotes fairness to minority and disadvantaged applicants in a way that other parts of the application process fail to do.

"Programs that drop the GRE scores as an attempt to increase diversity are trying to be innovative in addressing the challenges their programs face," Payne said. "But they may not realize that they are actually opening the door for bias, discrimination and elitism to creep into their admissions processes. The reality is that graduate admissions is an art and a science, and we need a balance of both. When we drop the science -- the one measure with 70 years of validity research and that goes through extensive fairness reviews -- we rely more on the measures that are qualitative and subjective in nature. Being human and therefore subjected to implicit bias (yes, all of us), our decisions can be swayed by the status and eloquence of the Letter of Recommendation author, by the reputation of the undergraduate institution, by the applicants' work, internship and other experiences. Applicants from "majority" groups and who belong to higher-income families are more likely to have the social networks and other means to submit a letter of support from a senator, a transcript from a top-tier UG institution, and experience from an unpaid internship."

He added that departments concerned about how tests are used should change their policies, not throw out the tests. "If it's too hot at home, we don't throw out the thermometer. We adjust our thermostats," he said.

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