Wednesday, July 1, 2009

New ETS grad school assessment

Success in graduate school is clearly not a matter of academic ability alone. In my observation at least, a good many other virtues or emotional dispositions shape whether a person completes graduate school, and in turn, how successful they are in their subsequent academic careers. Plenty of bright people end up leaving graduate school (or the profession) because they are not sufficiently creative, focused, or persistent, for example.

Now our friends at Educational Testing Service, who brought us the SAT, the GRE, the LSAT, and the other standardized tests, aim to identify those who have the personal characteristics to succeed in graduate school. Per the Los Angeles Times:

Is there a way to evaluate a student's drive, persistence, honesty and creativity? What is needed beyond college grades, test scores and traditional recommendation letters?

The Educational Testing Service says it has just the thing. The ETS, which runs the Graduate Record Examinations, will soon offer a supplemental assessment of graduate school applicants on those personal characteristics that could help students tackle advanced studies.

The new online system, called the Personal Potential Index, will ask faculty who know the students to rank them on a 1-5 scale for such attributes as communication skills, teamwork, resilience, organization and integrity. It asks 24 questions, including whether the candidate "produces novel ideas," "meets deadlines," "works well under stress" and "is worthy of trust from others."

So: is the aim of this assessment, assuming it's a good one, achievable? My recollection is that most graduate schools send evaluation forms to recommenders that ask similar questions about students. The hope (I guess) is that the ETS instrument will be more systematic or scientific. I'd be also be curious to know if anyone has ethical objections to this assessment: How would you feel about it if you were a candidate for grad school?


  1. Why wait that long? We can give toddlers the Marshmallow Experiment (see in which those who display more self control will achieve up to 218 points more on the SATs in adulthood! O.k., I'm being sarcastic.

    My guess is that philosophy Ph.D. and M.A. programs won't pay attention to this data and that it means I have to take even more time to send tedious data to accompany my informative and meaningful letter. Why will programs ask us to fill them out if they aren't going to use it? Because it is usually the graduate school office and not the department itself that determines such things.

    In all seriousness, surely this is not a great assessment tool, based as it is on highly subjective judgments about extremely vague concepts that are at best folk psychological. ETS is a business and so I don't fault them for expanding their product line, but I think the customers ought to beware.

  2. You could always read their report to see if they've got the empirical results to back up their claims of validity, Becko. From their report, it doesn't look like they have a lot (but I only skimmed it). It will be a few years anyways before people take it seriously anywhere, given that people will be skeptical until results show that it's a very good predictor of future academic success (and not something that is dwarfed by careful consideration of letters of recommendation, writing samples, etc).

    Occasionally, tests like these are better predictors than individual assessments. For instance a psychiatrist might be, statistically, less reliable than a standardized test at assessing whether someone has a particular condition, even when the hunch by the psychiatrist is that the test is not accurate in a particular situation. In other words, even overriding the test when it's 'surely wrong' results in less accurate diagnoses than just always following it. I don't think many people are going to care about this personality test unless it has some gusto behind it, like those tests do, but I doubt it will be that helpful. Many philosophy departments don't even care about GRE scores (past a certain threshold), let alone a personality test. I suppose if this is better than the GRE it might become somewhat relevant, but I don't expect that to happen either.


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