Banner
    Argument: GRE Is A Bad Way To Pick Physical Sciences Graduate School Students
    By News Staff | June 12th 2014 03:38 PM | Print | E-mail | Track Comments

    Selecting graduate students in the fields of science and engineering based on an assessment of "character", whatever that means, is better than relying almost entirely on their scores on a standardized test like the GRE.

    The goal in that would be to boost participation by women. Underrepresented even more in academia are Republicans and handicapped people, but the authors aren't worried about all minorities, just the correct ones. 

    The flawed premise is that women need some special track to be in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). It smacks of Larry Summers-style 'girls can't do math' patronization to claim that without creating a test just for them, women won't be able to get into schools. Schools are absolutely falling all over themselves to enroll women in STEM fields. The federal government has spent billions of dollars in the last 5 years doing STEM outreach and engineering has the lowest male:female wage gap in America - far ahead of academia and Obama administration. The strange belief is that we should be taking all the smart women who become doctors and convincing them to be physicists instead. And that perhaps giving them a personality test rather than a math one will do it.

    According to the authors, the primary reason that half of all American PhD students fail to graduate, and the primary barrier holding back women and minority students is American academia's over-reliance on the graduate record examination (GRE), a standardized test introduced in 1949 that most US graduate schools require for admission. The problem is that the exam's quantitative score – the part measuring math ability – is not a good predictor of a student's ultimate success, particularly in the STEM fields. Women, on average, score 80 points on average lower in the physical sciences than men and African Americans score 200 points below whites.


    True. If scores in math don't matter, we'd all be graduate students at Stanford right now. But math does actually matter in physics. But they turn it around, insisting that the GRE can only really tell schools that a student is a white male if they do well on it.

    The authors (and plenty of others) insist this is demographic bias.

    "The misuse of GRE scores to select applicants may be a strong driver of the continuing under-representation of women and minorities in graduate school. Indeed, women earn hardly 20 percent of US physical sciences PhDs and underrepresented minorities – who account for 33 percent of US university-age population – earn just 6 percent. These percentages are striking in their similarity to the percentage of students who score above 700 on the GRE Quantitative Measure," the article says.

    This is true. Men also get the same percentage of PhDs in the social sciences. Is it because all of the men are getting physics PhDs and only the ones who can't take tests go into social sciences? Is it because women take tests so they all go into psychology? 

    University of South Florida associate professor of physics Casey Miller and Keivan Stassun, professor of physics and astronomy at Vanderbilt University, propose an alternative approach: a 30 minute face-to-face interview that examines an individual's college and research experiences, key relationships, leadership experience, service to the community, and life goals.

    They believe that will be a better indicator of an ability to do physical sciences than test scores in math. They cite their own anecdotal evidence, saying that 81 percent of the 67 students who have entered the program have earned or are making good progress toward their PhDs and that most of them would have not be admitted if the math qualification were the determining factor. 

    Then Miller and Stassun say they are not advocating the admission of unqualified minorities in the name of social engineering - they just want to adopt a more accurate graduate school admission process that improves the quality of admitted PhD students and that doesn't eliminate large numbers of potentially talented minority and women students who have the right stuff to succeed in these challenging careers.