Clinical Impact Statement: Reducing barriers to access to graduate education has been a long concern, but it is even more relevant during the current COVID-19 pandemic. The authors encourage admission committees to reconsider requiring the GRE.
In 2020, the world has been plagued with a pandemic, continued incidents of state-sanctioned violence by police officers toward Black Americans, and natural disasters. During this time, various countries had stay-at-home orders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. This year has unmasked a multitude of unjust, inequitable, and corrupt systems, necessitated to reflect on the overdue changes our society must make to adapt and survive and offer insight opportunities. Educational systems were disrupted, including colleges and universities, in the way that they operate. In some cases, that could be a good thing. Colleges and universities had to make a complete paradigm shift toward models in which online learning replicates more closely an in-class experience. Despite the modifications, the graduate admissions cycle continues, and students are currently compiling their application materials. Numerous studies have revealed the three critical factors in successful admission applications into psychology graduate programs are undergraduate GPA, letters of recommendation, and scores on the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) (Briihl, 2001; Keith-Spiegel et al., 1994; Landrum & Clark, 2005; Purdy et al., 1989).
Although the GRE is a significant factor in graduate admissions, many graduate degree programs in psychology are re-assessing their admissions procedures, given the current state of the world. For instance, given the steady rates of COVID-19 and lack of a treatment or vaccine, many programs will be hosting their interviews virtually. Additionally, as testing centers closed and access to online modalities for the GRE fluctuate by region and on an individual basis, many universities have waived GRE requirements for some or all students for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle (Hu, 2020). However, other faculty and admissions committees across the country are uncertain whether graduate admissions committees should implement this waiver. The present article will address the need to waive the GRE for the current admissions cycle and discuss the importance of weighing the GRE's effectiveness and relevance in the admissions process.
Purpose of Admissions Testing
Historically, almost every graduate degree program in psychology requires the GRE, and the GRE tends to be among the most heavily weighted factors in the admissions process (Norcross et al. 1996; Norcross et al., 2006). The GRE was developed to predict the likelihood of graduate school success. However, much of the research on the GRE is mixed in this assertion. One study argued that the psychology subject test is a more valid predictor of success than the general test (Willingham, 1974).
Proponents of the test may point out that student experiences and learning vary between undergraduate institutions. In other words, a bachelor’s degree in psychology from one institution may represent a different level of preparedness for graduate-level training than the same degree from a different institution. With this in mind, the GRE could serve to provide a standardized appraisal of a student’s knowledge in ways that a degree alone cannot (Hu, 2020). After all, the GRE ostensibly exists to determine whether a student is likely to succeed in graduate education. That alone seems reason enough to require that students take the exam, except that the test’s validity and predictive value of graduate student performance are controversial. Even Educational Testing Service (ETS), the test creator, acknowledges that the GRE may only have a tenuous connection to student success (Clayton, 2016).
When admissions committees try to figure out which students have the best chance of succeeding, they use many tools. Most colleges and universities request letters of recommendation, transcripts, personal statements, and writing samples in addition to the GRE. They interview students and see if their interests and demeanor will make them good team or lab members and pupils. The admissions process is like a large, healthy breakfast. There need to be multiple components. There should be protein, healthy carbohydrates, and plenty of vitamins. As commercials for sugary breakfast cereals disclaim, the cereal is only one part of a balanced breakfast. However, if your breakfast already includes eggs, fruit, juice, and toast, is there any need for the sugary cereal? We already have plenty of nutritional elements in our admissions meal. We should excise the piece that not only provides little value but actively does harm. Just as Trix does not give any nutrients that toast and fruit cannot provide (while being an active detriment to health), we can already find out what we want to learn from the GRE without creating a barrier to students, including the cost of the exam or risk of health.
Leveling the Playing Field
Reducing barriers to access to graduate education has been a long concern, but it is even more relevant during the current COVID-19 pandemic. While some testing sites have been able to reopen and allow some students to take the test, others are unable to reopen. Access to testing centers varies widely based on state regulations, and internet testing also creates a barrier. Therefore, it is logical to waive the requirement not to deter students who cannot access the test from applying. However, the inherent unfairness of the internet alternative raises a different concern. What if the GRE is too biased to be ethically required? There have long been concerns regarding the GRE’s predictive validity. The concerns surrounding testing bias should be no surprise to the psychology community; as has been seen prominently with IQ testing, standardized tests often present problems with cultural sensitivity (Clayton, 2016). Like other injustices that have come into the spotlight, this one has existed long before the time of COVID. Rogers and Molina (2006) note, “Relying less heavily on GRE scores and other more traditional selection criteria seems to be a hallmark of the exemplary institutions’ approach to deciding which students they would like to encourage to enter their institution” (p. 154).
Discrimination in testing should matter to anyone in higher education, but psychologists especially should be sensitive to the GRE’s flaws and ethical failings. The American Psychological Association’s ethics guidelines enshrine that psychologists affirm the importance of justice and fairness and that psychology's benefits should be available to all regardless of background (American Psychological Association, 2017). Extrapolating on this principle, it is only ethical that the study of psychology is accessible, regardless of background. Scholars have purported that the GRE suffers from selection bias. Scores are correlated with SES, race, and gender. According to Miller and Stassun (2014), “the GRE is a better indicator of sex and skin colour than of ability and ultimate success” (p. 303). Significant gaps in quantitative scores exist between men and women as well as among ethnic groups, and research by the test developer (i.e., ETS) has shown that the exam underpredicts success for women over 25 (Bleske-Rechek & Browne, 2014; Clayton, 2016). The effects of these disparities are harmful, as they can stymie diversity and keep marginalized and underrepresented groups, such as women, out of STEM (Miller & Stassun, 2014).
Reducing barriers to access to graduate education for underrepresented students is a significant concern at colleges and universities. These institutions often aim to increase students' recruitment and retention. When you factor in application fees, travel expenses, and the cost of the GRE (not to mention the subject test), students are overburdened in general, especially given the current economy. This, in turn, creates an application process that creates barriers for underrepresented and marginalized students, including first-generation students (Burchett & Matthews, 2020). Not only does requiring the GRE conflict with the values upheld by the APA's ethics guidelines, but it is also detrimental to psychology departments and to the science itself. Psychologists have an ethical obligation to counteract the effects of bias in testing.
COVID-related restrictions provide a reprieve in the form of virtual tours and interviews for many students, including the first author. Requiring the GRE during a public health crisis is not only a financial barrier for many students. It may also discourage students from applying due to physical safety reasons. Now is the time to see what accommodations can be made in the graduate admissions process and commit to continuing to evaluate the process even after the current crisis has dissipated. Students should not have to wait for a pandemic to afford the application process, and students certainly should not be judged by their performance on a test that is unfair in the best of times.
Cite This Article
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