ETS Recommends Focusing Less on GRE in Graduate Admissions Decisions

The Educational Testing Service (ETS) is launching a campaign to change the way colleges and universities use the graduate record examination (GRE) when making admissions decisions. The company, which produces the GRE and other tests, says graduate departments’ focus on applicants’ GRE scores lessens the chances of their admitting women, African American, and Latino applicants and is recommending a more holistic approach to admissions.

ETS Vice President David Payne told Inside Higher Ed that the company is not advising that graduate departments stop requiring the GRE — in fact, ETS remains confident in the exam — but he said two developments have raised questions about how schools are using the GRE when making admissions decisions; these include a book examining doctoral admissions practices and a new policy issued by the American Astronomical Society.

In her recently published book Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Faculty Gatekeeping, Julie Posselt — assistant professor of higher education at the University of Michigan — analyzed the admissions policies of a number of doctoral programs. She found that many departments’ selection committees — which generally consist of department faculty members — set a very high cutoff for GRE scores, albeit unofficially, despite the fact that ETS does not advise such methods.

Further, Posselt found that many graduate departments set even higher GRE score standards for international students, especially in science fields, and favor students from elite and widely regarded institutions.

In light of Posselt’s findings, Payne said ETS will begin providing graduate departments guidance on why they can and should admit students from a wider range of exam scores. Some of the company’s research has indicated that extremely high test scores do not always carry over to high grades in doctoral programs, and giving preference to extremely high scores shuts out many women and minority applicants.

The other driving factor behind ETS’ campaign is the decision by the American Astronomical Society to recommend that astronomy departments stop using the GRE in admissions decisions or make the test optional. The society suggests that the GRE — and the subject test in physics, the PGRE — is a poor indicator of how well applicants will fair in graduate astronomy programs.

In a statement, the organization stated that evidence “suggests that GRE and PGRE scores are poor predictors of success in graduate study in the astronomical sciences” and “that misusing GRE scores, particularly by establishing score thresholds, fuels the underrepresentation of white women and minorities in graduate programs.”

ETS hopes to avoid similar situations with graduate departments in other disciplines dropping GRE requirements. This campaign will attempt to help faculty admissions committees consider exam scores, along with other factors, to expand the pool of applicants for their graduate programs.