About the GRE

9 Jan

I took the GRE in November last.  It had been 20 plus years since I endured a high stakes, standardized test. My reflections.

To begin with, the GRE is stressful. Going in the testing room is something like entering the Green Zone in Baghdad. You’re signed in and out, you have your picture taken, you’re scanned for electronic devices, and you’re monitored during the exam. You repeat the process to go to the restroom. Also you sit in a grey cubicle in front of a computer for 4+ hours. No food. No music. Stress hormones floating in the air.

Even if the environment itself weren’t stressful, the GRE would be stressful for social reasons. Why? Because you have to do well on it to go to graduate school, get an advanced degree, get to do the thing you’ve pinned your hopes and dreams on, retroactively make your parents’ lives purposeful, etc. Images of your mom, neighbors, people you went to church or shul with loom up in front of you in the grey booth, threatening to return with disappointed expressions if you fail, etc.

Registering for the test is also rather Kafkaesque–the various medieval agreements, legalistic jargon, complex instructions, multiple and repeated threats to cancel your test and not refund your money! if you do something wrong–all of this is perhaps even worse for your peace of mind than the test-taking environment.  One of the things in particular that you are required to sign forces you print the text of a long-winded license agreement by hand.  Imagine doing that with iTunes.

Compared to the above, the test itself is relatively benign. There are multiple thirty-minute sections testing three things: quantitative reasoning (or math), analytical writing (where you make an argument about someone else’s argument), and verbal reasoning, which is a kind of mix of logic and language. If you say this here, what should you say over there, etc. But for me the GRE sections or the particular questions aren’t really the problem.

One problem is just the stress: do people effectively demonstrate rich and varied learning in high stakes environments? Probably not. Should they have to? No, in my opinion. Another problem is that the GRE doesn’t really test anything people do. When, for example, do you ever have to write an essay in thirty minutes? Without an opportunity to revise? Or without a spell checker? And when, if you’re not a mathematician, do you solve quadratic equations for the heck of it? An assessment that has no connection to what you do in life, or even what you would do in graduate school (trust me, you get more than a half hour to write your essay in graduate school), isn’t helping you, although it might be helping someone else.

Maybe the worst problem I have with the GRE is on a conceptual basis. It’s with the idea that you can and should test people in isolation as fixed entities. That the test assumes I have, say, a kind of inherent knowledge essence that is discrete and knowable separated from the people I work with or the things I am doing. That I am a container more or less filled of the stuff teachers put into me. You see where I’m going: in a sense the GRE takes up the teacher-centric education idea that says knowledge is conveyed in little packages from a positive knowledge pole (the teacher) to the negative pole (me) and that we can measure the amount transfered like we can measure rainfall by looking at a graduated cylinder in the yard.

For one thing, the limits of thinking of ourselves as “fixed” are made clear by Carol Dweck’s compelling research. In short: people who see themselves as “fixed,” or “good,” say, give up when things get tough; people who don’t care as much what they are, but instead focus on getting better and being resilient and trying again succeed in the hard spots. The GRE and the way it’s given seems to reinforce the fixed mindset. Either you’re good (and can deposit an essay in a half hour) or you’re not (and can’t); no room for someone to, say, draft, reflect, tweak, get feedback, adjust, do some more research, etc.

I’m much more interested in people as developing and growing beings and want to see them learning over time–in actual contexts. So for me a better assessment would more or less look like a record of our growth throughout school. Be it the kind of complex, multi-domain cognitive development assessments the Developmental Testing Service (that’s DTS as opposed to ETS) offers, be it a great e-portfolio, be it a discursive report on the student, their work, and their environment (my preference).

Of course this doesn’t exist as far as I know. What to do in the meantime? Well one thing we could do is drop the requirement of the GRE and reinvest the money invested in taking it into beefing up the teams of thoughtful people who are tasked with reading applications for admission.


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