Main graduate school admissions test revised as use drops by half

Makers of GRE seek to revamp standardised test after universities raise concerns over diversity and value

May 31, 2023
 Workers disassemble a Tree in New York to illustrate Main graduate school admissions test revised as use drops by half
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The GRE, the mostly commonly used standardised graduate-school admissions test, is being dramatically scaled back in size and content as US universities overwhelmingly move away from its use.

The Covid pandemic accelerated an already active movement by higher education away from standardised tests because of concerns about cost, their racial and demographic biases and their general failure to accurately predict student success, with use of the once ubiquitous GRE falling by at least half since 2018.

Many other countries have also abandoned the GRE, but at a slower rate and with the notable exception of India, where growth is being driven by a heavy embrace from business schools.

The test, which dates back to 1936, will be shortened to last only about two hours, with the drastic reduction or removal of several sections, according to its maker, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the world’s largest private non-profit educational assessment company.

The price of the test – $220 (£180) in the US and most parts of the world – will not be changed, ETS said.

“The changes we’re making to the GRE test have been prioritised based on test-taker feedback,” Alberto Acereda, the company’s associate vice-president for higher education, said in a written response to questions about the decision. “We know that conversations are taking place at institutions across the country about the value of the GRE test and its role in graduate admissions,” Dr Acereda acknowledged.

ETS’ decision regarding the GRE follows years of difficulties for the SAT and ACT, the two main standardised tests for undergraduate admissions. More than 1,800 US colleges and universities have either stopped accepting SAT or ACT scores or made their submissions optional.

Among numerous troubles for those tests and their makers, federal auditors have complained that the exams pose major difficulties for students with disabilities and the tests struggled with online formats during Covid. Some leading conservatives have pushed a Christian-oriented alternative to the SAT, while faulting the College Board for its new Advanced Placement course in African American studies.

Like the SAT, the GRE is described by its maker as a unique and invaluable tool for national and global comparisons of students in such areas as verbal and quantitative reasoning, critical thinking and analytical writing.

“GRE scores provide the only standard, objective measure by which academic decision-makers can evaluate applicants with different backgrounds and experiences to determine their preparedness for graduate-level study,” said Dr Acereda, a former professor of Latin American literature at Arizona State University.

He declined, however, to address growing concerns about biases and accuracy. Among the evidence fuelling such questions, Boston University reported last year that, after its 2019 decision to eliminate the GRE requirement for applicants to its School of Public Health, applicant diversity improved with no difference in academic performance among students who did not take the test.

And while ETS’ own figures show a 50 per cent drop in GRE test use, a study published last year by the journal Science, reviewing application requirements for doctoral programmes in the sciences at 50 top-ranked US universities, found that only 3 per cent of the schools required GRE general test scores in 2022, down from 84 per cent in 2018.

Among the changes announced by the ETS, the GRE test will reduce the number of questions in its Quantitative Reasoning and Verbal Reasoning sections, cut the “Analyze an Argument” task from its Analytical Writing section, and remove an unscored section. The ETS also promised to produce GRE test scores within eight to 10 days from the exam, rather than the current 10 to 15 days.

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