The GRE hurts graduate schools — and science
When I arrived to take the Graduate Record Examinations this past January, it was hard to tell whether I was in a testing facility or an airport security line. After submitting my identification and placing all my belongings in a locked drawer, I was waved over by a security wand and instructed to turn out my front and back pockets, shake out my sweatshirt hood and lift up my pant legs. I recalled the MTV movie about six teenagers who conspire to steal the SAT answer key. During the 3½ hour exam, my fellow test takers and I were under constant video surveillance and permitted to leave only once, for 10 minutes, provided we signed in and out. We were allowed to write on only official GRE scratch paper, which seemed suspiciously identical to normal paper, except for the text printed at the top reminding us that cheating was, as a matter of fact, forbidden. All these security measures reminded me of the time my friend Maggie opted for eight simultaneous ibuprofens rather than seeing a doctor about her swollen ankle.
I had to take the GREs, protracted and belittling though they may be, because I could not become a biochemist without them. According to U.S. News and World Report, of the top 10 biochemistry graduate programs in the United States, only one, the University of California, Berkeley, is test optional, and, historically, a low GRE score means no admission to any graduate program, in or out of the sciences. The logic, according to the website of the GRE’s administrative company, Educational Testing Service, or ETS, is that the GRE is “a proven measure of an applicant’s readiness for graduate-level work” and “gives you more opportunities for success.”
This description seems reassuring, as the future of biochemistry rests in the hands of graduate students who have passed through the GRE. But what kinds of students tend to do well on the test? According to Robert J. Sternberg, a professor of human development at Cornell University, mostly rich, white and male ones. Sternberg, talking to The Atlantic magazine, refers to decades of research from Stanford University, New York University, the University of Florida and the University of Missouri showing that women and racial minorities consistently underperform on the GRE compared with their white male counterparts. A 2014 Nature article by Casey Miller and Keivan Stassun supports Sternberg’s claim, stating, “in simple terms, the GRE is a better indicator of sex and skin colour than of ability and ultimate success.”
GRE results fail to predict performance in future academic courses, an area where even the notoriously biased SAT is somewhat effective. In 1997, Sternberg and Wendy M. Williams, another Cornell professor, published data in American Psychologist suggesting high GRE scores fail to correlate with any metric of graduate school success beyond first-year grade point average — and this correlation held for only the analytical section of the GRE and for only male students. My own adviser, now a tenured professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, initially was rejected from graduate school because her GRE math scores were too low.
Even though its irrelevance has been clear for more than 20 years now, the GRE survives because ETS, a self-styled “mission-driven, not-for-profit organization” that has not paid federal taxes since 1949, uses the exam to enrich its executives. Robert Murley, the ETS chairman, has no background in education, holding a B.A. in politics and master’s degrees in business administration and economics. According to its IRS form 990, a publicly available document that federal tax exempt organizations must fill out yearly, ETS had revenues of about $928 million, $1.2 billion and $1.1 billion in 2015, 2014 and 2013, respectively, in addition to more than $600 million in assets. Greater than 85 percent of that revenue came from “Program Services,” including test-prep courses and practice books that ETS promotes on its website, as well as the $205 fee to take the GRE, which amounts to more than 20 hours of work at my on-campus job (low-income students can pay half that). Since 2011, ETS has allocated more than $240 million of its income to salaries and wages, plus an additional $13.9 million for “executive compensation.” The Washington Post reported that, in 2015, some ETS board of directors members worked approximately two hours a week for almost $1,000 an hour, totaling $103,000 that year. Meanwhile, the average graduate student in the U.S. earns less than $30,000 a year, and most professors are in a near-constant scramble for funding. What kind of science would be possible if researchers had even half the amount of money ETS sees on a yearly basis?
The GRE still exists not because it provides an accurate assessment of graduate school readiness, not because it allows across-the-board comparison among applicants from various schools and not because it creates educational opportunities but because business executives with no interest in science or education can earn huge sums of money from the proliferation of a discriminatory exam and because universities are complicit in that effort. Each time a graduate program requires applicants’ GRE scores, it is dissuading low-income, female and minority students from becoming scientists. The fields of molecular biology and biochemistry have probably lost thousands of creative, hard-working, curious individuals by demanding they participate in an outdated, discriminatory examination system that exploits students to enrich those at the top. All graduate programs affiliated with the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology should remove their GRE requirement as soon as possible.
When I finally was released from the exam, a woman waiting at the bus stop recognized me from the testing center. I asked her what she thought of the exam. “It was OK,” she replied. “It’s my second time taking it, so I knew what to expect. But I didn’t score high enough, so I’ll have to take it again sometime. Maybe during spring break.”
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