POV: What BU’s School of Public Health Learned After Dropping GRE
In an editorial for BU Today, Dean Sandro Galea and Dean Lisa Sullivan explain how their study that examined data from six admission cycles informed the school’s decision to drop the standardized testing requirement.
A version of this article originally appeared in BU Today.
There has long been substantial debate about the utility of standardized testing in university admissions processes. Arguments in favor of testing say it is a fair way of measuring academic aptitude, helping ensure accepted students can thrive in their academic programs. A different perspective on testing says that these assessments themselves are inequitable, creating financial and logistical barriers that disadvantage students from marginalized backgrounds and prevent the full flowering of diversity on campus. While this debate has unfolded around testing at the undergraduate and graduate level, we write today from the perspective of graduate professional education, reflecting our roles at the Boston University School of Public Health, where we offer graduate professional and research degree programs.
Our school had long required the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) for student admission. We did so for the same reasons many schools do, under the assumption that the tests support excellence in academic communities and provide a better overall assessment of prospective students. On a review of the growing literature in the field that was, in our assessment, increasingly showing that the GRE risked perpetuating inequities in the admission process, we revisited this policy, opting to drop our GRE requirement in 2019, committing to review that decision after we had three years of data in hand.
In line with our commitment, we collected data and revisited our decision three years after we implemented the change. Last week, we published the data, providing an additional, empirical, lens through which one may view decisions to consider—or not consider—standardized testing for graduate program admission. Our study tackled the question of whether dropping the GRE requirement results in students in our programs who could not succeed academically, and whether dropping the requirement improved diversity of our admitted students. We analyzed six SPH admissions cycles—three before dropping the GRE and three after.
To the first of our questions, we found no declines in applicants’ academic performance, in students’ capacity to complete our required core courses, or in graduate employment within six months of graduation. In other words, students did as well in our program on several measurable metrics once we had dropped the GRE admission requirement as they had done when we required the GRE for admission. To the second question, we found increases in the number of first-generation applicants, although increases in the overall diversity of applicants were relatively slight. In other words, direct effects of changing admissions requirements on class diversity were modest.
What did we learn from this study? In our assessment, this work adds to existing work, but fundamentally suggests that the data on the implications of dropping standardized testing for graduate school admission remain limited; this study is very much on the vanguard of efforts to understand the effect this policy change can have on academic communities. We still have much to learn about whether the GRE has, in fact, acted as a barrier to more equitable admission standards. Indeed, others have suggested that there are other reasons why the GRE and other standardized tests may have utility, including in the pursuit of equity. These reasons deserve a fair hearing in a context of continued empiric inquiry into the use of the GRE and other such tests.
Where does this leave us on the merits of standardized testing as a requirement for graduate student admission? Having now revisited our original decision three years in, we will keep our policy of not requiring the GRE, heartened by this new data, with the understanding that this step will not impede our continued pursuit of excellence. At the same time, we are aware that changing policy around the GRE is not enough, that there is much else we can do to support diversity and inclusion in academic communities. The pursuit of equity is a work-in-progress, and a core focus for our school. At SPH, we have engaged with this work through our 10-Point Plan for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice. Items on this plan include continuing to support systems that promote academic equity and success for all students inside and outside the classroom, advancing curriculum and pedagogy that design the classroom experience for academic equity, and shaping equitable systems that eliminate structural barriers for our community.
We are doing work—and have much more work to do—on this front. For example, we recently launched an effort to review all our syllabi through a diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) lens, an effort that is engaging the whole community of teachers at the school. We look forward to this work unfolding, to tracking data to see how much better we are doing then towards our mission to be as inclusive a community as possible, without losing sight of being excellent at what we do.
The debate about the GRE requirement has, at times, insisted on a choice between diversity on one hand and excellence on the other. The data increasingly show this to be a false choice, that we can indeed have both if we are willing to commit to the work necessary for achieving both. As we move ahead with these efforts, we look forward to the continued emergence of a science that points to strategies that can achieve both diversity and excellence.