October 28, 2011

Attitude on Aptitude

by Yuze Yang, Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy
Most students have had to take several standardized tests throughout their academic careers.  Some gauge students solely on their knowledge and expertise, while others assess students on their aptitude.  Aptitude is defined as an innate ability, rather than an acquired knowledge, to perform certain tasks at a certain skill capacity.  Standardized aptitude tests have been utilized in a variety of ways, from identifying children with learning difficulties as early as in elementary school, to conversely distinguishing gifted students with higher propensities for scholastic success.  One of the most notable and notorious examples of an aptitude test, taken by millions of high school students each year to determine their readiness for college, is the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).  On the surface, the SAT evaluates students’ achievement in basic algebra, geometry, reading and writing. However, in deeper ways, the exam is also similar to an IQ test in measuring students’ abilities to interpret and analyze presented information and solve problems.  Nevertheless, the validity and usefulness of employing aptitude tests to establish the paths in which students proceed in their academic careers still remains controversial.

Admission to most pharmacy schools in the U.S. follows similar requirement patterns as to undergraduate schools, including the use of a standardized aptitude test as one of the key components. 
Endorsed by the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, the Pharmacy College Admissions Test (PCAT) has been the preferred qualification verifier for admission to pharmacy schools since 1975. It tests students in both aptitude and achievement in seven areas: verbal ability, quantitative ability, biology, chemistry, reading comprehension, and two writing sections.  The objective of the exam is to determine if they are suitable for a future in pharmacy by assessing not only the depth of background knowledge candidates have acquired, but also their capacities to learn and process new information.  The PCAT score is the most frequently used standardized test used as a selection criteria among colleges of pharmacy.  Several studies have been conducted regarding the correlation of PCAT scores with academic success, most of which have shown them to be significant predictors of pharmacy students' first-year GPA.1  Allen and colleagues examined several pre-pharmacy predictors of success in pharmacy schools and found PCAT scores to be one of the best predictors not only for the first professional year but also for success in practice-related courses and clerkships.2  Despite these findings, some pharmacy schools have elected to NOT use the PCAT among their admission criteria and instead place more emphasis on prior academic achievements.  One such example is the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), whose pharmacy program has been ranked #1 for several years according to US News and World Report.3  Numerous factors are used to determine whether or not a candidate is accepted to UCSF.  Thus, opponents of standardized tests believe that such tests aren’t necessary to make good admission decisions and don’t enhance the successfulness of a school in terms of cultivating a student body or offering a excellent degree program.  Furthermore, PCAT test scores have not been correlated with future job performance.4

Since pharmacy schools produce future
medical professionals who will become responsible for the well-being of the public, they must use the highest standards for selecting top-quality students that can master the material.  As more and more new schools of pharmacy open and accept growing pools of candidates to join the field, being able to discern who will excel in all aspects of pharmacy education, not simply test-taking and information acquisition, will be increasingly critical.  Hence, the success of students’ careers, both academic and professional, will likely rely on gauging not only the aptitude for learning material and scoring well on tests, but also the degree of motivation, conscientiousness, and dedication to translating information to improved patient care.  In other words, aptitude AND attitude are equally important.

3. US news and world report pharmacy school rankings (2008). Retrieved October 23, 2011 from
4. Munson JW Bourne DW. Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT) as a predictor ofacademic success. Am J Pharm Educ. 1976; 40:2379.

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