Getting rid of the GRE

An investigation by Science has found that, today, just 3% of “PhD programs in eight disciplines at 50 top-ranked US universities” require applicants’ GRE scores, “compared with 84% four years ago”. This is good news about a test whose purpose I could never understand: first as a student who had to take it to apply to journalism programmes, then as a journalist who couldn’t unsee the barriers the test imposed on students from poorer countries with localy tailored learning systems and, yes, not fantastic English. (Before the test’s format was changed in 2011, taking the test required takers to memorise long lists of obscure English words, an exercise that was devoid of purpose because takers would never remember most of those words.) Obviously many institutes still require prospective students to take the GRE, but the fact that many others are alive to questions about the utility of standardised tests and the barriers they impose on students from different socioeconomic backgrounds is heartening. The Science article also briefly explored what proponents of the GRE have to say, and I’m sure you’ll see (below) as I did that the reasons are flimsy – either because this is the strength of the arguments on offer or because Science hasn’t sampled all the available arguments in favour, which seems to me to be more likely. This said, the reason offered by a senior member of the company that devises and administers the GRE is instructive.

“I think it’s a mistake to remove GRE altogether,” says Sang Eun Woo, a professor of psychology at Purdue University. Woo is quick to acknowledge the GRE isn’t perfect and doesn’t think test scores should be used to rank and disqualify prospective students – an approach many programs have used in the past. But she and some others think the GRE can be a useful element for holistic reviews, considered alongside qualitative elements such as recommendation letters, personal statements, and CVs. “We’re not saying that the test is the only thing that graduate programs should care about,” she says. “This is more about, why not keep the information in there because more information is better than less information, right?”

Removing test scores from consideration could also hurt students, argues Alberto Acereda, associate vice president of global higher education at the Educational Testing Service, the company that runs the GRE. “Many students from underprivileged backgrounds so often don’t have the advantage of attending prestigious programs or taking on unpaid internships, so using their GRE scores serves [as a] way to supplement their application, making them more competitive compared to their peers.”

Both arguments come across as reasonable – but they’re both undermined by the result of an exercise that the department of Earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University conducted in 2020: A group evaluated prospective students’ applications for MS and PhD programmes while keeping the GRE scores hidden. When the scores were revealed, the evaluations weren’t “materially affected”. Obviously the department’s findings are not generalisable – but they indicate the GRE’s redundancy, with the added benefit for evaluators to not have to consider the test’s exorbitant fee on the pool of applicants (around Rs 8,000 in 2014 and $160 internationally, up to $220 today) and the other pitfalls of using the GRE to ‘rank’ students’ suitability for a PhD programme. Some others quoted in the Science article vouched for “rubric-based holistic reviews”. The meaning of “rubric” in context isn’t clear from the article itself but the term as a whole seems to mean considering students on a variety of fronts, one of which is their performance on the GRE. This also seems reasonable, but it’s not clear what GRE brings to the table. One 2019 study found that GRE scores couldn’t usefully predict PhD outcomes in biomedical sciences. In this context, including the GRE – even as an option – in the application process could disadvantage some students from applying and/or being admitted due to the test’s requirements (including the fee) as well as, and as a counterexample to Acereda’s reasoning, due to their scores on the test not faithfully reflecting their ability to complete a biomedical research degree. But in another context – of admissions to the Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS) – researchers reported in 2019 that the GRE might be useful to “extract meaning from quantitative metrics” and when employed as part of a “multitiered holistic” admissions process, but which by itself could disproportionately triage Black, Native and Hispanic applicants. Taken together, more information is not necessarily better than less information, especially when there are other barriers to acquiring the ‘more’ bits.

Finally, while evaluators might enjoy the marginal utility of redundancy, as a way to ‘confirm’ their decisions, it’s an additional and significant source of stress and consumer of time to all test-takers. This is in addition to a seemingly inescapable diversity-performance tradeoff, which strikes beyond the limited question of whether one standardised test is a valid predictor of students’ future performance and at the heart of what the purpose of a higher-education course is. That is, should institutes consider diversity at the expense of students’ performance? The answer depends on the way each institute is structured, what its goal is and what it measures to that end. One that is focused on its members publishing papers in ‘high IF’ journals, securing high-value research grants, developing high h-indices and maintaining the institute’s own glamourous reputation is likely to see a ‘downside’ to increasing diversity. An institute focused on engendering curiosity, adherence to critical thinking and research methods, and developing blue-sky ideas is likely to not. But while the latter sounds great (strictly in the interests of science), it may be impractical from the point of view of helping tackle society’s problems and of fostering accountability on the scientific enterprise at large. The ideal institute lies somewhere in between these extremes: its admission process will need to assume a little more work – work that the GRE currently abstracts off into a single score – in exchange for the liberty to decouple from university rankings, impact factors, ‘prestige’ and other such preoccupations.