Why you should care

Because your future should not depend on whether you know a bunch of obscure words.

A 68-year-old is a hot topic in higher education these days. And why not? Multiple studies show this sexagenarian discriminates against women and minorities and does a lousy job to boot.

Meet the GRE — or, if you’re a former grad student, revisit some sweat-soaked nightmares. The Graduate Record Examination, a widely used verbal and quantitative test, is taking heat from multiple quarters. Research from Yale and Vanderbilt shows that the test is only a modest predictor of success for first-year grad students. Other studies reveal huge gender- and race-related disparities. In response, a growing number of colleges and universities have dropped the test from their requirements, and the trend shows no sign of slowing. In a 2014 paper titled “A Test That Fails,” academics from Vanderbilt University and the University of South Florida included this blunt assessment: “The GRE is a better indicator of sex and skin color than of ability and ultimate success.”

If it weren’t a long-standing tradition, it would be considered outrageous.

Professor Scott Barolo, University of Michigan

Ouch. Is that any way to talk about a retirement-age pillar of standardized testing? Apparently so, say critics. On average, women score 80 points lower than men in quantitative scores in physical sciences, according to data from the Education Testing Service (ETS), the company that administers the GRE. African-Americans on average score nearly 200 points and 150 points less than Asian-Americans and white Americans, respectively.

David Payne, vice president and chief operating officer at ETS, defends the exam, arguing that the disparity in the test scores doesn’t mean the test is biased. Rather, it points to a larger inequity in education and resources.

The GRE may soon have some company in the form of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the quartet of American College Testing (ACT) exams as the relevance of standardized testing in general is questioned. More than 500 accredited schools and colleges in the U.S. no longer use SAT/ACT scores, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. “The allure of standardized testing was popular decades ago,” says professor Joshua Hall, director of the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) at the University of North Carolina. Hall adds that’s proving to be a faulty notion.

The exam also burdens students financially. The application fee is $205 and includes submitting scores to four schools; it costs $27 to send them to each additional school. Katherine Medina, a Honduran-American scholarship student who at times juggled three jobs while studying philosophy and linguistics at Sarah Lawrence College, dreamed of becoming what she calls the world’s best high school sex ed teacher, and that meant grad school. She resorted to a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the test and relied on free online prep tools. (Kaplan’s course options start at $699 and run up to $2,499.) Ultimately, her bid for a seat in an American graduate school of education proved unsuccessful.

The GRE’s shortcomings haven’t gone unnoticed by admissions committees, which in recent years have pushed to reduce reliance on the exam scores. Even the ETS is encouraging programs to de-emphasize GRE scores and not use them as cutoffs. Some programs at the University of California, Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University recently dropped GRE requirements. In 2015, the president of the American Astronomical Society wrote an open letter urging the chairs of departments in the field to rethink the role of the GRE. In response, several astronomy programs, including Harvard’s, removed the test from their physics requirements.

The latest to bail is the University of Michigan’s Program in Biomedical Sciences (PIBS) program. “For a long time there was really no point in discussing [it],” says professor Scott Barolo, PIBS director, since students needed the score for pre-doctoral grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. But in 2010 the NIH dropped its GRE requirement, and NSF followed suit in 2015. “So it became clear that there were no institutional or funding barriers to reconsidering this decision,” says Barolo. After debating the issue at a town hall session, PIBS announced on August 18 that it would drop the GRE starting next year.

On Twitter, the decision was applauded by many, including Hall at the University of North Carolina, whose research on the ineffectiveness of the GRE in predicting student productivity came out in January. He urged other biomedical programs to follow University of Michigan’s example. “I think what Michigan did is an important domino that had to fall,” he says, adding that the movement to dump the GRE is likely to pick up momentum.

While many faculty members across the nation are in favor of dropping the GRE, there’s also a tendency to cling to the test, flawed as it may be. “Having quantitative metrics is very appealing [to some faculty] and makes the process of sorting through hundreds of applications much easier,” says Hall. Dropping the GRE can seem like taking away a security blanket, he adds. It also doesn’t help that it’s been around for so long. “If it weren’t a long-standing tradition, it would be considered outrageous,” says Barolo.

It may be years before the GRE becomes obsolete. But, “the dam is breaking,” says Barolo, adding that universities will realize that even good students might choose not to take the GRE and will apply only to schools that don’t require it.

Medina isn’t hanging around to find out when that’ll happen. She’s starting a graduate program in gender and education in Honduras — on track to become the best sex education teacher in the world.

* Correction: The original version of this article misstated post-doctoral for pre-doctoral grants.

OZYFast Forward

New trends and breakthrough thinking in politics, science, technology, business and culture. It’s futurism at its best.