Facing the Test: Grad School as Statistical Uncertainty

Series of Slip-ups Skews Scores, Worries Students, Troubles Officials

Savage is not alone in this point of view. As ETS continues to grow, and its "surplus funds" (it enjoys non-profit status) expand beyond the million-dollar mark, the legitimacy of standardized tests is being challenged from a variety of sources. The Bakke case raises serious questions about standardized tests--regarding the kind of information they reveal about a student and the possibility that the tests are culturally biased. The very existence of special admissions programs like the one at the University of California at Davis Medical School, from which Bakke was twice rejected, is based in part on a belief that standardized tests are an inadequate means of evaluating applicants.

Rep. Michael Harrington (D-Mass.) may pose an even more direct threat to the standardized testing establishment. He is currently rewriting a bill he introduced in the House last year seeking to limit the use and power of standardized tests. "The basic aim of this bill is to see a less mechanized, less fallible process," James Castello, Harrington's legislative assistant, says. "What you can read from someone filling in little IBM bubbles for three hours does not amount to much," he adds.

In its re-written form, the bill will probably stipulate that colleges and graduate schools must stop using "cut-off scores" on tests as the basis for either automatic rejection or automatic admission. Another stipulation would prevent school admissions officers from discriminating against students who choose not to take standardized tests.

If it passes, Harrington's bill will force schools to develop more thorough, accurate admissions procedures. Castello says he thinks schools tend to place too much emphasis on test scores because of their convenience. "ETS will tell you that a statistical variation of 60 to 70 points is insignificant," Castello says, adding, "That range of error tends not to be widely enough respected. A law school regards an applicant with 700s very differently from one with 630s, for example."

Castello admits, however, that the bill "has not exactly caught on like wildfire," and that it is not likely to pass in the House. Despite the dark cloud under which the testing establishment has fallen recently, the immense market for standardized tests--such as the minimal competency tests that many states are now adopting--is growing, Castello says, adding, "As a nation we are showing no sign of decreasing our reliance on these tests."


For the near future, at any rate, it appears standardized tests will remain an integral part of the application process in America, and an unpleasant part of our lives. One Harvard senior, who is still on the waiting list for admission to the Law School, said he feels "frustrated to think that I might not get into a school because the school accepted an abundance of people who scored better than me because ETS fucked up. It's one thing to be beaten out of a fair game, but this is harder to take."