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Penn program drops GRE for admission, claiming ‘biased’ test hurts women, minorities

‘We will not discriminate against you’ based on ‘biased’ test

Does the Graduate Record Examination primarily benefit rich white men, or level the playing field for less privileged students to compete for admissions slots?

The University of Pennsylvania’s philosophy doctoral program is taking the first view, ditching the GRE not only as an admissions requirement but also promising to ignore GRE scores if applicants provide them.

In a statement shared on the philosophy blog Leiter Reports, Chair Michael Weisberg said the decision to blacklist the GRE was “unanimous” in the department.

Not only does the requirement harm low-income applicants and offer “unfair advantages” to applicants of means – namely, score review and test prep services for extra fees – but women and “underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities” fare more poorly on the GRE, Weisberg claimed.

He cited “significant gaps” in performance for these applicants, and said the scores of those who did get in “sometimes dramatically underpredicted their academic performances in our program.”

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That suggests that the program is not heavily relying on GRE scores in the first place. Weisberg said GRE scores “in general” don’t accurately predict performance in graduate school.

A longer and more revealing version of the statement shared by Quayshawn Spencer, associate professor of philosophy, was posted at another philosophy blog, The Daily Nous.

While this statement made clear the change is “experimental” and not set in stone permanently, it also made even more clear it was driven by identity politics, not science:

So, women, minorities, and low-income applicants, apply to Penn philosophy! We will not discriminate against you based on an outdated, expensive, biased, and predictively invalid test.

‘Grades and recommendations are likely to be very biased’ – more so than GRE

The statement drew comments on The Daily Nous discrediting the idea that the GRE privileges elites, who have many other ways of obtaining admissions slots.

One commenter said they came from “an undistinguished college where I lacked access to famous letter-writers,” putting this self-identified grad student at a disadvantage with the real elite applicants:

[I]t’s not at all clear to me that, on balance, the GRE confers significant advantages to high-income students, given that (i) high-income students are more likely than low-income students to attend [selective liberal arts colleges] or well-regarded research schools, which already serve as proxies for excellence; (ii) because high-income students are more likely to attend selective schools, they’re more likely to have famous letter-writers; and (iii) if you’re applying to 10 or more schools, the cost of the GRE (including the cost of additional test scores) pales in comparison to the cost of applications.

This person also said if schools are worried that the GRE doesn’t accurately predict performance, they should show equal skepticism toward graduate GPAs, which are “(notoriously) inflated, and if arbitrariness is an issue in undergraduate grading, it’s surely worse at the graduate level.”

Another commenter, who self-identifies as a tenured academic, said their “notably strong GRE scores” made the difference on top of “somewhat poor grades” offset by “somewhat strong letters from somewhat known people.”

“I’m not yet convinced that there’s anything wrong with” using GRE scores as “an additional bit of evidence” as opposed to a determining factor, the commenter said, questioning whether minorities’ GRE scores “sometimes” or “consistently” underpredict success.

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Yet another commenter said Penn was junking an easy metric rather than making a persuasive case about all the other metrics it uses:

Penn cites evidence that the GRE is biased against women, minorities, and low-income students. Let’s assume that evidence is correct. Now Penn needs to show that the combined evidence it does use (e.g., writing sample, transcripts, recommendations) is not *more biased* than the GRE. In particular, I would be worried that other sources of evidence are closely related to “soft skills” that have been shown to be areas where high-income college students vastly outperform their peers.

Notice that the proper goal here is to have a fair final procedure, not to eliminate biased evidence. Doing otherwise would treat absence of evidence (of bias in other evidence) as evidence of absence (of bias). Grades and recommendations are likely to be very biased, even if it is more difficult to gather evidence on that subject. If I had to guess, I might say that writing samples will be even more biased because of the difficulty in learning to write in a “philosophical style” at that stage in life. I do not, however, know how these biases will fall, other than likely disadvantaging low-income students.

One of the few fully identified commenters – the University of Michigan’s Chandra Sripada, with a joint appointment in psychiatry and philosophy – said GPA “is about as predictively valid” and potentially biased as the GRE, raising the question why Penn philosophy continues to consider GPA:

College GPA has weak predictive validity too, and disparities in GPA between whites and [underrepresented minorities] are substantial — plus getting a college GPA obviously costs a fortune, especially from a brand name. The predictive validity of letters is known to be terrible, and they tend to reinforce status cliques, not break them down.

I definitely respect Penn’s decision to ditch the GRE but I am surprised at the unanimity of their department as the trade-offs here are complex — reasonable people can (and really should) disagree.

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Educational Testing Service, which administers the GRE, told Inside Higher Ed that Penn was “actually opening the door for bias, discrimination and elitism to creep into their admissions processes.”

Its global educational division’s chief operating officer, David Payne, said Penn was dropping “the science” and relying more on “the measures that are qualitative and subjective in nature”:

Being human and therefore subjected to implicit bias (yes, all of us), our decisions can be swayed by the status and eloquence of the Letter of Recommendation author, by the reputation of the undergraduate institution, by the applicants’ work, internship and other experiences. Applicants from “majority” groups and who belong to higher-income families are more likely to have the social networks and other means to submit a letter of support from a senator, a transcript from a top-tier UG institution, and experience from an unpaid internship.

The program’s decision to junk the GRE is like throwing out a thermometer because “it’s too hot at home,” he said.

Read the varying statements at Leiter Reports and The Daily Nous, and read Inside Higher Ed coverage.

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg Piper served as associate editor of The College Fix from 2014 to 2021.