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The low numbers of female and minority students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields has been fodder for much debate. A new analysis argues that the GRE, a standardized test that most U.S. graduate schools require, is in part to blame.

An article published in the June 12 issue of Nature contends that U.S. universities place too much stress on the GRE when making decisions about graduate admissions. Casey Miller, an associate professor of physics at the University of South Florida, and Keivan Stassun, a professor of physics and astronomy at Vanderbilt University and Fisk University, write that admissions committees, by focusing too squarely on the GRE, are shortchanging women and under-represented minorities and also failing to admit the best students into their Ph.D. programs.

The GRE is a poor predictor of success in the sciences, Miller and Stassun argue. Studies find “only a weak correlation” between high GRE scores and ultimate success in STEM fields.

The test does, however, reflect traits that are unrelated to scholarly potential – such as socioeconomic status, the authors say. (The SAT, a standardized test used in college admissions, perennially receives similar criticisms that high performance on the test is an artifact of family wealth.) The physicists put it bluntly: “the GRE is a better indicator of sex and skin colour than of ability and ultimate success.”

On the quantitative portion of the test, women in the physical sciences score 80 points lower, on average, than men do, according to data from the Educational Testing Service, the company that administers the GRE. African-American test-takers score 200 points lower than whites on the quantitative section.

Some admissions committees, Miller and Stassun report, filter applications using GRE scores. For example, a committee might reject any applicant who has scored below 700 on the GRE’s 800-point quantitative section. This use of GRE scores threatens to delete otherwise qualified female, black and Latino candidates from the applicant pool, Miller and Stassun argue.

The ETS’s guidelines explicitly advise against using cut-off scores for admissions.

The authors argue that admissions committees should attempt to identify applicants who demonstrate “grit and diligence” by (for example) conducting interviews instead of relying so heavily on GRE scores.

At their home institutions, both Miller and Stassun are involved in Ph.D. bridge programs that have comprehensive admissions processes, including interviews. Eighty-five percent of students in the Fisk-Vanderbilt program, a mentoring program that guides students in the sciences from a master's degree to a Ph.D. scored less than 700 points on the GRE’s quantitative portion. A score of that sort would commonly get an applicant rejected from top STEM graduate programs. But 81 percent of the 67 students in the program have earned, or are making good progress toward, their doctorates. (The national average is 50 percent.) Of the 67 students in the program, 56 are minorities and 35 are women.

David Payne, vice president and chief operating officer of ETS’s Global Education Division, said in a written statement that the GRE had well-documented predictive validity when it came to assessing an applicant’s readiness for graduate-level work. He stressed that the test was designed to supplement other measures in the admissions process, such as an applicant’s undergraduate record and letters of recommendation.

“Attributing lower numbers of women and minorities only to the GRE test understates the issues associated with graduate admissions dramatically,” Payne said. “Other factors including cost, time and personal interest also play into decisions on whether to pursue a degree in the STEM fields.”

In response to criticisms that the GRE did not account for non-cognitive abilities, the ETS in 2008 decided to add a non-cognitive portion to the test. The Personal Potential Index (PPI), which has been part of every general GRE since July 2009, is an appendix that allows professors or supervisors – typically those who are writing letters of recommendation -- to evaluate a candidate in areas such as knowledge and creativity, resilience, and team work. Not all graduate programs require the index.

"We believe there is an appropriate role for standardized test scores, undergraduate grades, diligence and yes, non-cognitive factors such as 'grit'" in the admissions process, Payne said.

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