What are the reasons we have for dropping the GRE?


In the midst of the rush to drop the GRE, I think it helps if we spell out exactly why the GRE is considered to be a problem. I think people are all not on the same page here (of the manual for best practices in diversity, equity, and inclusion), so I wanted to spell out the rationales that I hear and don’t hear. I think there are four.

1. The GRE is a barrier. Taking the GRE costs a ton of money, and getting waivers requires time, effort, and advance planning. If you think the GRE isn’t that costly in terms of money or time, then I’m here to tell you that you are inadequately experienced with the student population that you’re trying to recruit.  Not only is the money hard to come by, but also, the time it takes to prepare for it is no joke. This barrier enhances inequities. (I’ve seen a few powerful PIs at prestigious universities assert that if the GRE is such a big barrier for students, then those students are not in a position to be ready for grad school. The people who say that are elitist ignoramuses and are best avoided.)

This is my main motivation in the push to drop the GRE requirement. I’ve had a lot of students who want to do their MS or PhD, and are well prepared for it, but in their last year of college, surmounting the long list of things that one must do to even apply is difficult — especially when most PIs that they contact completely ignore them. Adding the GRE to this list of tasks just makes the headwind stronger. When a student has to decide among paying the rent, buying groceries, and taking the GRE, it’s absurd to place this as a barrier.

2. The GRE is biased. It’s been pointed out that the GRE predicts income and ethnicity better than anything else. With all of the cultural biases that are baked into the test, then using the GRE is seen as a barrier, then using this as a part of the decision making process often impedes efforts for equity and inclusion.

3. The GRE is bullshit. Does measuring “aptitude” in this way tell us anything about who will be a better scientist? Let’s imagine that the socioeconomic biases in the GRE magically don’t exist. Or let’s imagine that we are looking at GRE scores for a very homogenous population. What does the GRE tell us? Does it measure anything other than the ability to do good on standardized tests? What is “aptitude,” anyway, in any kind of measurable sense? And, even if “aptitude” is measurable in a useful way, how does it vary across time? There are apparently plenty of people who think that ability is a fixed trait, which I think indicates a very circumscribed experience with humanity. So if a person has low “aptitude” when they’re taking the test, does that mean that their aptitude cannot be greatly improved with support — well beyond the bounds of the error bars of the measuring tool? You’ll see that the preceding questions are questions — they end with question marks. I’m not offering answers, I don’t have enough confidence to put one forward, but I have enough confidence based on what I’ve experienced and read to remain doubtful whether the GRE offers any useful information. I’ve known so many people to be incredibly brilliant and capable scientists who had extremely low GRE scores, and I’m highly reluctant to interpret this kind of instrument to measure ability. I think the GRE might be a measure of how much preparation a person has had in the traditional sense, but I’m not sure what that gets us, considering the wide range skills sets that a person needs to be a scientist. Anyhow, I haven’t read much of the secondary literature on “intelligence,” and none of the primary literature, so I’m not really sure what to think on this point.

4. The GRE funds ETS which is an unethical monster and we should work to diminish the educational testing industry. I think this is a straightforward argument, so I won’t dwell on it. I don’t disagree with it, but it’s also not at the top of the list of fights that I feel like fighting, though kudos to those who rank their list in a different order.

Those are four possible reasons. Do you have different reasons, or are they misrepresented here? I don’t think everybody needs to agree on their motives to get rid of the GRE, but it does help to be on the same page if the institution is going to adopt polices that actually help improve recruitment to make it more fair and inclusive. Because dropping the GRE is not enough, not even close. Sure, pat yourself on the back for dropping the GRE — briefly — and then roll up your sleeves.

We are missing the next steps for equity after removing the GRE. If the GRE is a bad ingredient in the decision-making process, then what should be using that is somehow better? Not many folks are discussing the reality that most other measures used in the grad student amissions process are also rooted in the same financial and cultural biases as the GRE. All of the other things that get used (institutional prestige, access to research opportunities, even grades) also have these biases baked in too. So dropping the GRE isn’t a major victory, at best it’s removing a small hurdle (and at worst, removes a way for a minoritized person to show one way that they excel using traditional metrics). I think this boggles people, who don’t know how to go about this. It requires a big shift in how we think about admissions and how we operate, but here’s a direction I think we should be going.

2 thoughts on “What are the reasons we have for dropping the GRE?

  1. Your somewhat pithy label for #3 is why my department has dropped the GRE requirement for admission to our PhD program: it fails to predict performance or success. We began by setting a minimum GRE score for admission, rather than ranking applicants by GRE, and that was a great improvement, but ultimately we found that low-GRE applicants were poorly qualified in enough other ways that the GRE minimum was irrelevant/redundant. I wondered if part of the problem here is the confusion of aptitude and achievement, and uncertainty about which trait the GRE measures: students applying to PhD programs have often worked above the expectations of their aptitude (see the extensive lit on education in Japan, where everyone is expected to have the same aptitude, and only hard work separates the high achievers from the rest), while high aptitude students have often coasted through college without being seriously challenged. Which is the more attractive doctoral student, and how do we select them?

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