In 2011, over 800,000 people worldwide took the Graduate Records Examination, better known as the GRE, as part of an effort to gain admission to graduate education programs. This year, I will be among those taking the test.
The exam proposes to test critical and analytical skills in writing, reading comprehension and low-level mathematics not specific to any field of study. It requires test takers to write short essays, show wide knowledge of vocabulary and exhibit mastery of math concepts up to basic algebra and data analysis. It takes approximately four hours to complete and is computer based.
The organization behind the GRE, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), is a 65-year old non-profit that creates and administers a range of educational tests, including the PSAT, AP series and K-12 statewide assessments.
In my preparation for the exam, I have come to question the role it plays in graduate admissions and the role the ETS plays in the educational landscape. While ostensibly testing knowledge required for success in higher education, I find that the GRE actually tests a student’s ability to memorize and regurgitate information that he or she is unlikely to ever use again. And the ETS, which is legally a non-profit, seems to function more like a massively profitable private company, neglecting its responsibility to the public it purports to serve.
First, I’ll address the test. It is broken up into three sections: analytical writing, verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning, designed to test a taker’s ability to “articulate complex ideas clearly,” “understand multiple levels of meaning,” and “interpret and analyze quantitative information,” respectively. At first glance, these seem like reasonable skills to test. But when you examine the actual content, it becomes apparent that this is not the case. Take the verbal reasoning section: it contains many questions that require knowledge of advanced vocabulary — so advanced, in fact, that many of the words are essentially never used in common discourse. Some examples are: deleterious, analgesia and pulchritude. When the first few pages of a Google search only turn up definitions of the word or examples of its use in scientific literature, one can safely assume that it is not necessary for a successful life and career. The quantitative reasoning section focuses on information that most students likely learned during sophomore year of high school, and promptly forgot, as they understood (intuitively, perhaps) that they really didn’t need to know how to graph a function or memorize the quadratic equation. Does a computer science graduate student really need to know what “stentorian” means? How often will an English Literature student need to calculate the area of a cylinder?
I had to pay $170 to register for the exam (the price differs by region). The ETS must use that money to ensure quality control and testing fairness, right? One can imagine my dismay, then, when I discovered that the organization’s president, Kurt Landgraf, was paid over $700,000 in 2009 (the most recent tax filing is publically available) and that even its board members, in a practice the IRS discourages, received compensation of over $50,000. Remember, this is an organization that receives taxpayer money to carry out K-12 testing in many states, including California, where their contract was valued at near $170 million.
Such expenditure is appalling. Excess revenue should go toward reducing fees for test takers or providing more free test prep materials. The ETS functions as a monopoly in its field, but, because it is listed as a non-profit, is not subject to antitrust laws. And the number of programs that require the GRE is growing!
Consumers should express their outrage over the GRE’s purported usefulness and the abusive practices of the ETS. Students around the world, many of whom exhibit intelligences that do not appear on such a test, are being held down by a greedy multinational organization, and institutions of higher education are suffering for it. We need creative thinkers and innovative leaders who can navigate the rapidly changing landscapes of a globalizing world, individuals who are driven, passionate, considering and alert.
Whether they can define “imprecation” doesn’t matter.