By Josh Newman
Emily Anderson, an English PhD candidate, did not have a good experience taking the Graduate Record Examination, otherwise known as the GRE.
“I had to take the GRE at an official test center about 90 minutes away from me,” she said, “because they are all scored on computers now and they don’t offer pencil paper tests within the US.” Not having a car, this made things difficult. “But ok,” she continued. “I do as I’m told. I show up to the test center and I undergo a security regimen that rivals airport security in its intensity.”
What she means is the strict, meticulous procedures taken by any GRE test center to guarantee the safety of the test materials. Test takers are required to sign a confidentiality statement and a log-in sheet, store their personal belongings (including, and especially, phones and cameras) in a locker, review the contact information they had provided, and get their picture taken before they are escorted to the test center, which is monitored by video surveillance and test center administrators throughout the course of the exam. Food and drinks are not permitted, which is usual for any exam, but clothing like hats, scarves, jackets, and outerwear may not be allowed either. At the very least, they are subject to inspection. Unscheduled breaks are permitted during the exam but the test taker must raise his or her hand and be granted permission by an administrator to take one. They do provide scratch paper for test takers but the paper must be returned to the administrators by the test’s end. Etc. etc. The Educational Testing Service (ETS), the creator and administrator of the GRE, has a set of rules and recommendations to help test takers better comply with the regulations on its website. Administrators, for example, could ask you to empty out your pockets. Watches may not be allowed. ETS reserves the right to use electronic detection scanners (e.g., metal detectors and wands) on a person. ID verification may include thumbprinting, photographing, and/or videotaping. In a nice token of test takers’ well being, ETS asks that they dress to adapt to any room temperature.
While ETS words the test taking experience as delicately as possible, Anderson was more perturbed.
“It’s more dehumanizing than one would think,” she said. Anderson, who took the GRE general test in October of last year, explained to me her frustration with the procedures, particularly that she had to pay for the locker she stored her personal items in. What bothered her the most, though, was not the driving or the locker. It was the fact that she had to lift up her shirt to take the test. “They actually made me lift up my shirt…Seriously, you have to show someone your stomach in order to go to graduate school at most institutions in America.”
Most institutions is right. The GRE is the most prominent graduate school entrance exam in the United States. Thousands of colleges and universities require or accept the exam and approximately 675,000 students and professionals take it each year. At UB, many of the graduate programs in the business school and the College of Arts and Sciences require it, including the English, History, Psychology, Comparative Literature departments and the School of Management. ETS is the sole administrator of the GRE as well as its various subject tests, the MCAT, LSAT, GMAT, TOEFL, and TOEIC, and is contracted by the College Board to develop and administer the AP and SAT exams for undergraduate admissions. Confronting ETS before going to graduate school is virtually unavoidable.
It’s important to find out what exactly ETS is and what the GRE means for the thousands of test takers that are forced to pull out their wallets before they can even step foot in a test center – assuming, of course, their hat doesn’t have contraband material.
The Great (Non) Profit
ETS is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a history intertwined in the social fabric of America. It was created in 1947 after the G.I. Bill of Rights sent millions of young veterans to post-secondary schools at an unprecedented rate. Colleges and universities were not prepared to receive the large influx of students and requested some aid in sifting through the hoards of applications. ETS, a rather modest organization situated in a quaint building in Princeton, New Jersey, was formed by three previous education non-profits with the intention of administering standardized tests, the likes of which were experimented with since the 1930s. For the first time in American history, it was expected of most high school graduates to pursue some form of college education. The first clients of ETS included the Association of American Medical Colleges, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. State Department, and the Pepsi-Cola Company. ETS’s grasp quickly grew. In less than ten years, it controlled most standardized testing needed for admissions to undergraduate and graduate schools. In 1954, it moved its headquarters to a palatial 400-acre estate on Rosedale Road in Princeton, where it still resides today.
From the 1950s onward, ETS has dominated the standardized testing business. From the SAT to the GRE and others, its range of tests and the way it administers them gives off the impression that it is more than a simple non-profit, that it is more than an educational service: that it is, in fact, a monopoly, and as with any monopoly it has its fair share of lapses, complications, and dubious business dealings. Take for example the profits. It has made annual hundred million dollar profits throughout the years, earning a whopping $620 million revenue in 2003. In 2002, it gave fifteen of its officers bonuses up to $366,000. The president at the time, Kurt Landgraf, earned $800,000 for his first ten months, which was nearly twice as much as the College Board president’s salary. One vice president received $25,700 for her first five weeks in addition to the one-time payment of $212,206. That is roughly the same amount former UB President John B. Simpson got in his departing bonus, as covered in “The Great UB Bonus” from last issue. This would all be fine – the business of America is business – if it weren’t for the pesky fact that ETS is supposed to be non-profit (as such, it is not subject to corporate taxes) as well as the hefty sums test-takers have to pay for each exam. Anderson herself had to pay $415 for the GRE, a GRE subject test, and a score report. As millions of test-takers know and millions of future students are bound to find out, taking the GRE isn’t cheap. After September 30, it will cost $160 to take the exam. That doesn’t include the extra $23 it costs per school to send the scores out after the four initial free test scores as well as the many other fees ETS levies for additional services. For a test that is supposed to be readily accessible for every student, the GRE puts poor and generally cash-strapped students at an automatic disadvantage. ETS can virtually levy any fee it wants with no repercussions. Until the education system changes, students can’t exactly boycott the exam. With education cuts and a precarious economy unsettling the academic world and with tuition and graduate school application fees rising exponentially, potential graduate students need as many breaks as they can get.
Another issue with ETS is, well, the nature of ETS itself. As The New York Times pointed out, “Never has the nation’s education system been so reliant on standardized tests and the companies that make them.” In part due to the No Child Left Behind Act, which required every student from grades third to eight to take state tests, and in part due to the rising demand for professional degrees, standardized testing has become a staple of American secondary and post-secondary education. What makes this more problematic is that a half-dozen companies control the testing industry, with ETS dominating the college and graduate school side of things. Besides ACT Inc. and Pearson, which in 2006 beat out ETS in gaining the contract to administer the GMAT, ETS faces no serious competition, both here and in the rest of the world. The number of test takers is staggering. Beside the 675,000 annual GRE test takers, more than 180,000 teachers in 34 states took its certification exams, and about 820,000 foreign students takes the TOEIC or TOEFL each year. A pool so diverse and so massive should not be controlled by one private entity.
That’s not to mention the spin-off industry created by the advent of standardized testing: test-preparation. The two big ones, Kaplan and The Princeton Review, make millions each year catering to eager students wanting that competitive edge. Classes, review books, practice tests and online tutorials are all under their umbrella. Even a College Board subsidiary, www.collegeboard.com, offers such products. A branch of Kaplan, you may have noticed, is located in the Commons of North Campus. Students wanting to do well on the exam often go to these companies and pay an exorbitant amount of money for the goal of getting into graduate school.
But once in graduate school, how do test takers perform? Forget about the multi-national corporation and its fees. What’s most important about the GRE is its effectiveness. Critics argue that the GRE is not, in fact, effective in determining how candidates will perform in graduate school, and that is the principle behind any standardized test. In particular, the GRE is seen by some as discriminatory against women, minorities, and the underprivileged. Of course, those criticisms seem to be levied against anything nowadays, but in the GRE’s case there is cause for concern. A 2006 study published in The Journal of Blacks in High Education found that in “all of the standardized tests for admission to graduate and professional schools, the racial scoring gap is large and in many cases wider than the gap between blacks and whites on the ACT and SAT standardized tests for undergraduate admissions. In all cases the gap on these graduate admissions tests has remained unchanged or widened in recent years.” It pointed out that 8.8% of all students who took the GRE were African American and their average combined verbal and quantitative score was 821. That is 241 points lower than the average white score, a 20% difference.
Even if the racial divide is ignored, it’s hard to put aside the test’s fatal flaw – that is, its general failure to accurately highlight stronger students to admissions committees. Robert Sternberg, a former Yale psychology professor and current Provost of Oklahoma State University, published a study called “Does the Graduate Record Examination Predict Meaningful Success in the Graduate Training of Psychology?” in 1997. He stresses the importance of the GRE in admissions decisions and the problems that arise. In the study, he told a true story of a graduate admissions committee at a major research university that would separate applications based on GRE scores alone: Below 1200, 1200-1300, 1300-1400, and Above 1400. Those applications in the first two categories were rarely even considered; they were merely skimmed over before being placed in the rejection pile. The 1300 and above applications were usually chosen, and those with 1400 or above were considered first. Of course, not every admissions committee does this – the emphasis on GRE scores varies from school to school and there isn’t sufficient data to show on average how admissions committees use the scores. It’s fair to say that GRE scores play anywhere from a mild to a critical role in admission decisions. However, the fact that a prominent school would use such a method illustrates the necessity to ensure the test’s validity.
The study’s conclusions were damaging. Sternberg wrote that the GRE only shows a good correlation between scores and a graduate student’s performance during the first year. Besides that, the correlation between scores and other factors such as second/third/fourth/etc.-year grades, faculty evaluations, teaching abilities, clinical skills, and others were either inconclusive or weak. It mentions that more empirical-based tests (i.e. subject tests, MCAT, LSAT, etc.) are much better indicators of success but even then show nothing about clinical and practical aptitude. Furthermore, there are three major distinctions of human intelligence – academic-analytical, synthetic-creative, and practical-contextual – and of those three, only the academic-analytical abilities are tested on the GRE. Because the three distinctions aren’t interconnected, the test shows nothing about the other two. In short, “GRE scores were generally not valid or otherwise useful predictors of important aspects of success.” Of course, the study had its flaws. The study only included graduate psychology students at Yale. First, not all graduate students are psychology students. Second, Yale graduate students aren’t typical. And third, the range of GRE scores were somewhat small. Even so, Sternberg concluded that the GRE is not as strong of an indicator of academic success as people and admission committees make it out to be.
The reaction to this, at least in UB, is tepid. The heads of graduate studies in the history and comparative literature departments, for example, both stressed to me that the GRE is only one of many factors. “The GRE is not the most important part of admission,” said Prof. Krzysztof Ziarek, head of graduate studies in comparative literature. “[The most important parts are] the writing sample, letters of recommendation, GPA, especially in humanities courses, and the type of undergraduate education. GREs are one of the factors.” (Most department websites say the same.) When I mentioned the criticism against the GRE, he said that they “would be true of any testing or grading.” To Sternberg, this is not entirely so. No test or grading system is perfect but Sternberg recommended that schools test creative and practical abilities along with the analytical. That would result in a more accurate prediction of the best-qualified students. (In fairness, he did not think that the GRE should be abandoned but rather that they should be supplemented with the aforementioned theoretical tests.) Ziarek went on to say that one reason why the department considers the GRE is because the scores are required for Presidential and Dean’s Fellowships.
Stephanie Perry, the UB campus manager for Kaplan, granted the GRE more importance than Ziarek. “The GRE,” she said, “is the number-one determining factor for getting into graduate school.” She said that in certain disciplines, such as psychology and engineering, the GRE is absolutely critical for admission and that the exam is meant to help committees sort out students from a variety of schools, some of which, obviously, are higher-ranked than others. Either way, every official that I spoke to thought that the GRE is definitely an important, if not critical, factor for admissions.
Sternberg, like Anderson and others, has a qualm with this. The GRE should not be there for the sake of being there. It should be an accurate indicator of a candidate’s success in the program. It should include all the facets of intelligence. It should be fair and easily accessible. Instead, when an application is put forth to a committee, as thousands of applicants at UB and other schools hope to do, it can be severely curtailed by one score. A number. A number that is flawed, both in how it’s derived and how it’s interpreted. Anderson and thousands of other students are at a disadvantage. They should not have to show their stomachs. They should show their brains. For that, the GRE seems to fail.