Like so many topics in today’s society, the role of standardized tests in admissions has become polarizing. Somewhere along the way, being pro-standardized testing began to mean you are antidiversity. The call to “do away with the GRE” is positioned as supporting equity in education for underrepresented groups. Let me be crystal clear: this is not true. As someone who vehemently believes in improving diversity and equity in higher education, I stand behind the use of assessments, and I also know the critical importance in diversifying the tools available for learners along their journeys.
I came to the Unites States as a first-generation college graduate to continue my education, becoming the first in my family to pursue an advanced degree. Since earning my M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Georgia, I have dedicated my career to higher education, first by moving through the professorship ranks, later in administration as a director of graduate studies and now overseeing the global higher education division at the Educational Testing Service. In each of my roles, I have been deeply committed to the unique paths of learners pursuing a higher ed degree, remembering the many steps, obstacles and successes I experienced along my own journey.
There is no question that many challenges lie ahead for institutions in creating more equitable admissions processes. The past year has brought forth conversations that are long overdue and has forced the entire education community to evaluate our roles in the barriers that exist in today’s landscape, particularly the lack of diversity in graduate education and the challenges with equity people from underrepresented backgrounds face. We admire those who are working to break down barriers -- and at ETS, we’re committed to continue doing our part in advocating for quality and equity across education, especially higher education.
My colleagues and I speak regularly with colleges and programs that are discussing the role of the GRE in admissions. We’ve had conversations about how GRE scores are great indicators of graduate readiness because they provide valid and science-based measures of the critical thinking, reasoning and analytical writing skills that are needed in most graduate, business and law programs. We’ve also had conversations around criticisms of standardized tests as gatekeepers rather than door openers. While these conversations can be hard, when we keep the focus on student success, we can acknowledge that we’re all on the same side, and that we all want to expand access and equity for all learners and for both graduate students and programs to be successful.
Logically, we all know that the use of cut scores or any practice that overweights certain admissions criteria is detrimental to a fair process, and ETS has long advocated for a more balanced approach through a holistic admissions process. In fact, a recent study shows that it is the practice of using cut scores, not the GRE General Test itself, that disproportionately affects doctoral applicants from underrepresented groups. Eliminating GRE scores inflates the value of nonstandard, subjective information where intrinsic bias is rampant; even undergraduate grade point averages are influenced by the rigor of the undergraduate program, grade inflation and socioeconomic status, with private schools awarding higher GPAs than public schools. What we do know for sure is that no individual measure is perfect, but rather than throw out the one standard measure, we should focus on how to include GRE scores to ensure a fair admissions process and continue growing upon what admissions professionals consider when reviewing an applicant’s portfolio.
ETS offers excellent, free test prep -- including practice tests and monthly virtual events -- to all graduate school hopefuls. To those who demonstrate financial need, we also offer 50 percent GRE fee-reduction vouchers and waive the fee for additional GRE test prep materials. In addition to reducing barriers for students directly, we’ve also extended our fee reduction program to a dozen organizations that serve underrepresented groups, such as the McNair and Gates Millennium Scholars programs. We’ve offered this program for more than 30 years, and in the past six years alone, we have distributed more than 30,000 vouchers, with the numbers increasing year over year.
And for the past 12 years, we’ve offered the ETS Presidential Scholarships for HBCUs awarded to rising juniors or seniors enrolled in public and private historically Black colleges and universities who demonstrate high academic achievement and financial need. We are continuing our long-term collaborations focused on closing achievement gaps with organizations such as the National Urban League, the Council for Opportunity in Education and the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority-Serving Institutions.
We know that our work in supporting equity in higher education is never done -- increasing diversity and inclusion in America’s graduate programs is woven into the fabric of our organization. And so, I’m excited to share that we’re working toward building a student-centered portfolio that reimagines the educational experience for all learners, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds and first-generation students through a flexible, data-driven digital solution that supports every step of the educational life cycle. The skills, attributes, goals and experiences of every single learner should serve as a personalized road map to their future success -- and our vision will bring this to life.
In 2020, ETS acquired GradSchoolMatch.com, a free educational resource to match prospective graduate students with programs based on their interests and skills, connect them directly with faculty members, and provide resources as they decide on the next steps in their educational journeys. And as we speak, we’re pilot testing a new assessment of interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, or what some refer to as “soft skills,” to help applicants demonstrate a different set of skills to programs. At current, we have 15 graduate, business and law schools -- including minority-serving institutions and international universities -- participating in the pilot. GradSchoolMatch.com, the soft skills pilot assessment and GRE tests are just scratching the surface for what we plan to offer students so they can demonstrate to programs not just what they know, but who they are and whom they want to be.
As we create this digital solution, we are working with institutions, including HBCUs and MSIs, to understand their specific needs in recruiting, admitting and graduating more students from underrepresented communities. As a first-generation graduate student, I am deeply committed to continuing the development of products and services that help reach these students and put their needs first. And it’s not just me: it is, and always has been, ETS’s goal to break down barriers and open doors for learners, no matter their journey.