Don't Fix What Ain't Broke

Inside Higher Ed reports today on a new brainstrom from the ETS

With criticism growing that standardized tests and grades fail to convey the full picture of applicants, the Educational Testing Service is preparing a standardized way for graduate schools to consider students' non-cognitive strengths and weaknesses.

Under the "Personal Potential Index," which was developed at the request of the advisory board for the Graduate Record Exam, three or four professors or supervisors would answer a series of questions about candidates' non-cognitive skills in various areas, as well as a more general set of questions. Applicants would be rated on a scale of 1-5 on questions about their abilities in these six areas: knowledge and creativity, communication skills, team work, resilience, planning and organization, and ethics and integrity. Those filling out the forms would also be able to provide narrative answers on each of those areas, and the applicants' overall suitability for the programs to which they are applying.

Ummm.... I think we already have this. It's called a "letter of recommendation." And, indeed:

The original name of the index was the "Standardized Letter of Recommendation," with the idea that it would replace letters of recommendation in their current form, but the name was dropped and the index is now being pitched as a supplement to other materials.

Well, yeah, you probably would want to change that name, because it just makes it obvious what a gigantic scam this is. This is the ETS dreaming up a way to get applicants or universities to give them money for something they're already doing.

At least in physics, it's absolutely standard for graduate schools to provide little forms with exactly the sorts of questions the ETS is proposing, including the dippy five-point scales. I can only think of one or two schools that still ask for nothing more than a letter-- everybody else provides a form to fill out along with the letter. And these days, the vast majority of them are on-line, with handy clicky-box web interfaces and a spot where you can upload the file containing the full letter of recommendation.

There is, as far as I can tell, nothing that the ETS proposal brings to the table, other than a bill. Yeah, fine, they could standardize the system a bit, but the online recommendation systems have already become fairly standardized-- very few schools use their own systems these days, and the vast majority of the recommendations I've written over the past six years have been through a system called Apply Yourself.

What's going on here is that ETS has found a new angle to try to squeeze money out of college students and their universities. The process they describe would not provide any more information than is already available to graduate schools (at least in the sciences), but it would result in ETS getting another chunk of money out of every student applying to graduate school.

It's bad enough that they're already guaranteed a hundred-odd bucks a head because the GRE is a de facto requirement for graduate admissions, even though those scores are only used as an extremely coarse filter to weed out the complete idiots. Do they really deserve another payment for providing information that schools can already get for free?


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I wouldn't complain so much if they had anything past high school math on the general GREs.

By a cornellian (not verified) on 06 Jul 2007 #permalink

What a load of crap. Although it would be nice to have one standardized form, so I don't have to fill out so many, but then not everyone needs/wants the same info, and it doesn't take THAT long.

If enough schools believe they can offload cost and effort to ETS and have the students pay, it will likely happen.

knowledge and creativity, communication skills, team work, resilience, planning and organization, and ethics and integrity.

Process not product! If I need an incredible answer to an impossible problem I need a twitching high autist with zero social skills and overall bad attitude, not a prep school twit wearing monogrammed silk boxer shorts.

Ethics and integrity? I embrace White House rules of engagement for any real world competition. Winners exercise authority, losers exercise liability. Where there is no enforcement there is no law.

Yeah, the GRE really sucks, although it seems to be a de facto requirement only in the states. I'm in Canada, and I got into all 3 physics grad schools I applied to (two of which are large schools) with no GRE. All the schools say that they would like to have it, but don't actually care that much

By Ryan Vilim (not verified) on 09 Jul 2007 #permalink