Professor argues GRE hurts STEM, women and minorities

USF professor argues character more important for admissions, equity

test-grad-professorGraduate schools would do better to relax their over-reliance on a popular test score when it comes to admissions and instead try to judge the character of potential students, a University of South Florida professor argues.

The Graduate Record Examinations, a standardized test developed more than 60 years ago and a requirement at most U.S. grad schools, is not a good predictor of a student’s ultimate success, and is the primary barrier holding back women and minority students, said Casey Miller, a professor of physics at USF and co-author of “A Test that Fails,” published last month in the journal Nature.

“What we’re saying is, ‘Don’t misuse this tool,’ ” said Miller. “What people hear is not that, it’s, ‘We should get rid of standards.’ We’re not saying that. The point is that the GRE is not a predictor of success. And that should be understood, and it’s not.”

(Next page: A new method for admissions)

Miller is the director of the Physics Bridge Program at USF, a new effort that evaluates applicants on multiple dimensions including a half-hour interview with graduate candidates. He wrote the Nature paper with Keivan Stassun, a professor of physics and astronomy at Vanderbilt University and Fisk University, who is also involved in a bridge program.

The researchers say that women and African-Americans score significantly lower than white men in the physical sciences and if that is not accounted for, those groups are adversely affected in the application process.

They give examples that in the physical sciences, only 26 percent of women, compared with 73 percent of men, score above 700 on the GRE Quantitative portion, a measure of math skills. A perfect score is 800, and many universities impose the cut-off score of 700.

For minorities, the number scoring above 700 falls to 5 percent, compared with 82 percent for white and Asian test-takers.

“In simple terms, the GRE is a better indicator of sex and skin color than of ability and ultimate success,” the Nature article states.

The scientists speculate that the misuse of GRE scores may be driving the continuing under-representation of women and minorities in graduate programs, especially in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Women earn about 20 percent of U.S. physical science doctorates, while minorities earn just 6 percent.

Miller and Stassun say studies have shown that diversity increases productivity and innovation. They propose another approach. to the admissions process.

At Fisk-Vanderbilt and USF, bridge program candidates are interviewed on a broad range of topics, including college and research experiences, key relationships, leadership experience, service to community and life goals.

“We go through a much more holistic application review,” USF’s Miller said. “We’re trying to find the diamonds in the rough.”

In the Fisk-Vanderbilt bridge program, 81 percent of the 67 students admitted have earned or are making good progress toward their doctorate.

Nationwide, the success rate in graduate-level STEM fields is about 50 percent.

USF’s program is new, with three students admitted in its first year, but Miller is encouraged. “If you take the students we’ve admitted through the bridge program and put them next to our regular-admissions folks, you could not tell the difference,” he said. “There’s just some blemish there that has caused them to be overlooked.”

M. Dwayne Smith, USF’s senior vice provost for faculty affairs and dean of the office of graduate studies, said he was in “absolute agreement” that “a slavish devotion to the GRE is folly.” He said test performance should be treated as part of an overall admissions profile, noting that some USF departments — most recently, the school of social work — has eliminated the GRE requirement.

A spokesman for Educational Testing Service, the Princeton, N.J.-based company that produces the GRE, forwarded to the Tribune a response to the Nature article from company executives that argues the test is an appropriate predictor of such qualities as degree attainment, time to complete the degree and research productivity.

The response, signed by three executives, stated, “We agree that graduate admissions should be based on multiple sources of information, including standardized test scores, undergraduate grades, diligence and non-cognitive factors such as ‘grit.’ ”

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