Changes Loom in Grad School Exams

University Testing

FairTest Examiner, May 2011

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Responding to widespread criticism of their products, sponsors of several major graduate school admissions tests are planning major changes. This summer the Graduate Record Exam is unveiling a revision of its general test. The Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) has begun a review, which is likely to result in a comprehensive overhaul in the next several years. In the most significant move of all, the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) may no longer be required as part of the legal profession’s program accreditation process.

The GRE is the highest volume exam for admission to graduate and professional degree programs around the world. More than 600,000 applicants take the test annually. Independent researchers have documented the exam’s weak predictive value and negative impact on graduate school diversity.

After postponing plans for an updated test several times because of design, administration and security problems, the Educational Testing Service has announced that a GRE facelift will be put in place on August 1, 2011. The revised exam will eliminate antonyms and analogy questions. At the same time, the number of items that focus more on analysis and reading comprehension will increase. Some math problems will require test-takers to calculate and enter results rather than select among multiple-choice options. GRE Subject Tests will not change.

Historically, the GRE has been scored on the same 200-800 scale as the SAT college admissions exam, with ten point increments. But scores on the revised test will be range from 130 to 170 in one point intervals. Both scales are totally artificial, though the new version will place less emphasis on small differences.

The GRE will continue to be administered on computer. However, a new technology will allow test-takers to skip questions and return to them. They will also be able to go back and change previous answers, a flexibility that did not previously exist.

An American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) committee has called for an overhaul of the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), which it sponsors, to better identify applicants who understand that health problems often have behavioral or social roots. Critics claim the current test is geared to “science nerds,” not necessarily those with the strongest skills to be effective physicians. They also say it screens out many qualified minority students.

The AAMC committee recommended eliminating the current exam’s writing section, which it said has no predictive value. A new set of questions on content covered in sociology or psychology classes would be added. The revision would also include more items measuring reasoning skills in subjects such as philosophy, cross-cultural studies, and population health. AAMC President Roland Goertz, MD, explained that the new test should attract, “a broader-educated student, rather than students that predominantly focus on science in their preparation.” If approved by AAMC’s Board of Directors, the changes would be implemented in 2015.

According to published reports, a substantial majority of members of an American Bar Association (ABA) committee reviewing its law school accreditation rules want to drop its LSAT requirement. Currently all ABA-accredited law schools must administer a “valid and reliable admission test” to applicants.

The move could encourage more admissions offices to make the test optional or deemphasize its role in evaluating applicants. Either reform would likely enhance diversity. Most law schools currently put substantial weight on LSAT scores, in part because they play a major role in popular rankings. As a result, many highly-ranked law schools have relatively low enrollments from historically disenfranchised groups.

There is no fixed timetable for a final ABA decision on whether to eliminate the LSAT accreditation requirement.