Newswise — It has been long debated whether the Graduate Record Examinations (GREs) are an appropriate selection tool for graduate school admissions, and whether overreliance on GRE scores may exclude many students historically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

In a new study of 1805 U.S./permanent resident students at four state flagship research institutions, researchers at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the universities of Massachusetts-Amherst, New Hampshire and Vermont found convincing evidence that GRE scores are not predictive of STEM doctoral degree completion. The findings also show that relying on scores from the quantitative section (GRE Q) of the exam is likely to exclude talented students who score below arbitrarily defined “acceptable” scores but who have other characteristics that are likely better predictors of success.

The study is published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

“Although the Educational Testing Service (the organization that designs and administers the GRE) recommends that scores not be used as admission cut-offs, this practice still occurs. Our study shows that scores are not useful for identifying students most likely to complete STEM PhD programs and, surprisingly, that scores are negative predictors of completion for men. The pattern of increasing completion rates correlated with decreasing GRE scores was consistent for male cohorts at each institution studied,“ said Evelyn Erenrich, associate dean at the School of Graduate Studies and director of Graduate Recruitment, Retention and Diversity at Rutgers-New Brunswick.

“The GRE might be relevant to the admissions process if scores predicted who would fail first-year courses and drop out. However, our data shows no correlation between scores and first-year attrition or with overall time to degree,” Erenrich continued.

There also is a potentially significant financial impact to these findings, the researchers said. The annual cost of training doctoral students in the four institutions studied averaged $58,000 per student, so when the researchers extrapolate those figures nationally they find the overall “dropout” cost is between $1 billion to $3 billion per incoming doctoral degree cohort. They acknowledge, however, that this calculation does not include “the potential value of papers, patents and contributions to the teaching mission created by graduate students who did not finish.” 

“In 2017 the School of Graduate Studies established a transparent, consistent policy allowing graduate programs to apply for GRE Waivers,” said Erenrich. “This policy also benefits students with financial constraints by eliminating the significant cost for test registration, reports, and preparation. For fall 2019 admissions, the Molecular Biosciences PhD programs eliminated the requirement for the GRE. SGS also masks GREs for faculty evaluation of nominees for Dean’s Fellowships to promote diversity.”

Anibal Valentin, a Rutgers STEM alumnus said, “As an undergraduate interested in a STEM PhD, I always struggled with standard tests, including the GRE. Underperforming in these tests puts extra weight on minorities during the application and interview process because we have to convince beyond any reasonable doubt that our GRE scores were just an isolated incident. I successfully completed my PhD at Rutgers in molecular immunology and I am currently an assistant professor at a medical school and if I take the GRE now I will proudly and consistently fail it again.”

Based on their data, the research team believes that addressing the issue of GRE overreliance may be a key to opening more doors to untapped talent, particularly for women and other underrepresented groups in STEM fields. 

The team says that while policy makers at the NSF, NIH and other funding agencies have removed GRE scores from their decision-making policies, admissions committees who locally control selection of students have been slower to give up using the GRE scores. 

The full report “Multi-institutional study of GRE scores as predictors of STEM Doctoral degree completion: GRE gets a low mark” can be found here.  The website of a new organization focused on improving STEM doctoral admissions strategies can be found at www.beyondthegre.org.

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PLOS ONE