I encourage you to read it, but to provide a little background here, Harden argues that the SAT is not biased, but America’s K-12 education system is. The SAT faithfully tracks the unequal results. Dropping it deprives us of a useful yardstick in measuring those inequities.
Furthermore, a good SAT score is the criterion for college admission that cannot be purchased. Wealthy parents can buy their children places in elite schools, and they can pay for tutors to ensure they succeed there. Wealthy kids don’t have to get part-time jobs or care for other family members, and they can afford to take prestigious unpaid internships. But although they may pay for pricey courses that claim to help you ace the SAT, these courses don’t much affect scores.
Many graduate programs have dropped the GRE. Are they making the same mistake some colleges have made?
There are parallels. In most graduate programs, the student population does not reflect the diversity of the US population—it’s disproportionately white and wealthy. GRE scores, like SAT scores, are correlated with wealth and ethnicity. And, as is true of the SAT, there’s no evidence that the test is biased—the differences reflect bias in how the educational system in the US allocates opportunity.
But whereas the SAT may allow more equitable admissions decisions, I doubt that’s true for the GRE. I think the equity problem for graduate admissions is different than the undergraduate issue and calls for a different solution.
In graduate admissions, we focus on two characteristics of the candidate: capability (can they do the work?), and motivation (will they want to do the work)?
(Note that I said “we.” Professors have nothing to do with undergraduate admissions, but everything to do with it on the graduate side. Graduate training operates on a mentorship system, so an individual professor makes the admission decision, subject to the approval of her department and school.)
Your grades and GRE score tells me whether you can do the work. Statistically the GRE adds some information to grades—the score’s not completely redundant—but it doesn’t add a lot. The GRE would help with the equity issue if there were a big halo effect for prestige schools; in other words, if I didn’t trust that the A- you earned at a not-very-selective school (say, Southern Illinois University—Carbondale, which accepts about 90% of applicants) is equivalent to an A- from Yale (which accepts about 5%). Or even equivalent to a B from Yale.
In my experience, that’s just not that big an issue. First, there are excellent faculty everywhere, and no one is more aware of that fact than university faculty. (I truly picked USI-Carbondale at random, but when I went to their psych webpage I immediately noticed a memory researcher with an excellent reputation who I’ve known by reputation forever, as well as one of our PhDs, now a professor there.) If I’m really concerned about whether courses were rigorous, it’s easy for me to find out exactly which textbook they used in their Introduction to Cognition course, and so on.
I can see why some faculty might figure “the more information, the better,” but it’s asking the student to go to a non-trivial amount of trouble and expense to provide me with information that I don’t value that highly.
The equity problem loads less on the capability metrics (grades and GRE), and more on the metrics of motivation. Motivation is crucial because it could easily happen that, although you enjoyed cognitive psychology as an undergraduate, you’ll later find that doing it for 50 hours per week doesn’t float your boat. No one benefits if you spend a year or two discovering that you’re sorry you came, so when I look at applications, I want evidence that the person knows what they are getting into.
Research experience is the main way to show that, because that’s what you’ll be doing when you get to grad school.
And wealth helps you gain research experience. Wealthy kids can take an unpaid research assistant position for a summer or during the school year. Wealthy kids attend colleges where faculty have elaborate labs and are given time outside the classroom to mentor students in research. In addition, wealthy kids are still cashing in on their rich high school experiences; coming in with a lot of AP credits, they can get to upper level courses that call for research earlier in their college careers.
If the GRE won’t do much to identify untapped talent, what will?
It might help to measure motivation in a more situation-specific fashion. Doing research is great, but having done a project doesn’t reveal great motivation if you attend a school where a research project is required, or where participating is just a matter of signing up.
Other students might have less research experience, but have showed determination in making the most of what was available to them in light of the environment, and/or their other responsibilities.
In other words, we should be asking graduate candidates if they had special circumstances (work-related, health-related, and the like) that affected their undergraduate years. For example, when a student takes a course on structural equation modelling online, instead of wondering whether it was really comparable to an in-person course, we should credit the student for taking the initiative to take a course not offered at her school. If student A’s undergraduate research project seems somewhat unimaginative compared to that of student B, we might note that student B worked in a large lab that churns out many projects each year, whereas student A worked with a professor whose teaching responsibilities leave him little time to supervise student research, but the professor thought so highly of this particular student, he made an exception. And so on.
Standardized tests should always be interpreted in light of the purpose to which they are put. In the case of the GRE, I don’t think there’s a lot of value added, either in terms of helping us to identify great future psychologists, nor specifically in terms of ensuring that we’re not leaving talent on the table. But making changes to our evaluation of student motivation might improve our decision-making.