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Op-ed: Waiving test scores in graduate admissions process reduces equity

By Yon Soo Suh

Jan. 19, 2022 2:37 p.m.

When a graduate program decides to waive standardized test scores from its admissions process, students from underserved backgrounds and even international applicants like myself are put at a serious disadvantage. I believe that there is a side to this story that often goes undiscussed – the reality that removing test scores fails the very students graduate schools are working so hard to attract, admit and retain.

Graduate programs boast that every applicant deserves a fair shot to advance their education. Standardized tests are, for all intents and purposes, designed to promote equitable opportunities by providing a level playing field. For high-stake, norm-referenced assessments for graduate school admissions – standardized tests that are designed to compare and rank test takers in relation to one another – standardized tests are one of the few, if not the only, procedurally fair measures where everyone takes the same test consisting of rigorously tested questions and are assessed on the same scale. This is not the case for other indicators of academic achievement, such as undergraduate GPAs, which can vary widely from applicant to applicant depending on course rigor, instructor differences and the type of institution. Private schools, for example, are more likely to engage in grade inflation than public ones.

In addition to being a common measure of critical skills necessary for grad school success, standardized test scores serve other purposes for both applicants and schools for students. The tests provide another outlet to demonstrate what they have to offer, which can offer redemption for students if other components of their application fall short. Moreover, access to test scores of previously accepted students helps to demystify the graduate application process and provides a tangible goal that potential applicants can work toward. For graduate faculty, test scores can give additional insight into a student’s strengths and, just as importantly, areas where they may need additional support. Revealing what kind of support and help graduate students need upon their acceptance unrolls a blueprint for graduate programs to follow to support students’ academic success.

I cannot help but be apprehensive when I see schools dropping the GRE from admissions, especially considering that it has validity research behind it – indeed, at least two decades’ worth of – which countless numbers of students, myself included, have leveraged to gain acceptance into their dream graduate and professional programs. In particular, I fear that the measures that remain are those most open to subjective interpretation by admissions committees and often influenced by the socioeconomic background of applicants. For example, how admissions committees perceive the quality of letters of recommendation can depend on whether they know the person who wrote the letter, whether they’re impressed by the company or institution the author is from, or even how eloquently the letter is written. Another example is that students who have fewer resources probably won’t be able to show as much research experience, unpaid internships or work experience related to their field because these students have more than likely been working to earn a living, so they can stay afloat during their studies. While it can also be argued that students with more resources tend to do better on standardized tests because they are likely to have greater academic support, can afford tutors and additional prep materials, or can take the test multiple times, the same logic can be applied to everything we submit with our application. At least with the abundance of free test preparation materials – including free practice tests, a lot of which are easily attainable – I would argue that applicants have an opportunity to not only access the resources they need to do their best but the opportunity to excel to reach their dreams.

Although standardized test scores are by no means perfect nor can they provide a complete picture of a whole person, I believe they are one of the best tools available to objectively compare applicants from very different backgrounds. Programs adopting holistic admission shouldn’t look at it as an either/or situation, meaning they are not using GRE scores or they are doing holistic admissions. They should be doing both to benefit every applicant from every background. At the undergraduate level, many institutions have conducted holistic reviews while using standardized test scores. Fostering equity and inclusion for all students in graduate education requires a long-term commitment at all levels starting with undergraduate research opportunities, mentoring and support – something universities can work on.

Yon Soo Suh is a doctoral student in the Social Research Methodology division of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies concentrating on advanced quantitative methods encompassing statistics and psychometrics.

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