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January 29, 2013

Contesting the Use Of Tests

Standardized tests are often about as popular as the messenger murdered for bringing bad news -- and if it were up to their critics, would meet the same fate. Their "disparate impact" on minorities (most recently discussed here) provides one of the standard justifications for continuing affirmative action.

Now their use seems to be seeping out of academia. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, some college graduates are listing their scores on the Graduate Record Examination on their applications for non-academic jobs. The test seems to be of increasing interest to employers, in part because grade inflation has made grades less useful as an indicator of knowledge or ability.

Oddly, academic merit -- at least as measured by good grades and high test scores -- is highly unpopular in academia these days, no doubt in large part because it is an obstacle to be overcome in the effort to diversify. William E. Sedlacek, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Maryland, said businesses should focus "on candidates' non-cognitive characteristics, like resilience, creativity, and the ability to take directions, learn on the fly, and work in teams," qualities for which not only GRE scores but even a college degree would seem to be poor proxies.

An even more scathing view of the relevance of whatever the GRE tests was expressed by Robert J. Sternberg, former president of the American Psychological Association and provost of Oklahoma State University, particularly regarding those who submit their scores to employers.

Doing so, he said, suggests that such applicants prize narrow aptitudes over traits like hard work, dedication, and a sense of responsibility. 

"I hire people all the time," Mr. Sternberg said in an e-mail. "If someone included his or her GRE scores on a job application, I would find the information highly useful. I definitely would not hire the individual."

This is the same Robert J. Sternberg who once defined intelligence "as your skill in achieving whatever it is you want to attain in your life within your sociocultural context by capitalizing on your strengths and compensating for, or correcting, your weaknesses."

If submitting a high GRE score to a prospective employer enhances your chance of being hired (whether without or within "your sociocultural context"), doing so would seem to be a perfect example of Sternbergian intelligence.

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