Like Britain departing the European Union, academic departments and programs across the United States higher education landscape are voting to leave behind the GRE.  The notorious exam from the Educational Testing Service (ETS) traces its roots back to the 1930s, but penciled its way to fame in the post-WWII higher education expansion.  

The GRE is widely disputed.  While the test makers purport the values in “fairness, access, multiculturalism, and equity,” the higher education community has pushed back against the exam, particularly in recent years.  The dispute centers on the cost, preparation, and discouragement of non-majority individuals from taking or excelling on the exam, largely due to privilege.  Further, the GRE is indicated to not predict the success of an individual in graduate studies, as the exam is marketed.  Historically, programs not requiring the exam may receive applications from individuals who might not otherwise apply, but additional recruiting was needed.  With more widespread #GRExit, these trends may be changing to become even more inclusive for applicants.

The #GRExit movement gained further momentum with the COVID-19 pandemic.  The temporary shuttering of testing centers and the administration of remote standardized exams proved cringe-worthy in admissions circles.  Logistics aside, the question remained – do we need this exam?

While ETS advertisements somehow make their way into my Twitter feed, standardized exams continue to be a prominent metric throughout education.  Personally, I forewent the wildly expensive prep courses and paid to take the exam twice.  That $400 was money that could have been put to better use elsewhere, adding to the already pricey application fees to graduate schools.  This is not an unusual occurrence.  Many impacts on students’ lives shape their abilities to prepare for or to take costly examinations.  Both studies and personal accounts indicate that GRE scores may not correlate with PhD performance.  In a personal account, a PhD student wonders what would have happened in their life and to their career had the admissions committee not overlooked poor GRE scores.  They pose the important question wondering how “many people are kept out of science not for a lack of talent, but because they didn’t excel at a standardized test.”

The GRE provides a potential benefit to admissions committees – a numerical score assigned to an applicant – where admissions committees have another factor on which to evaluate or to support an admissions decision.  Much like a height bar in a roller coaster line, the applicant must have a certain number in order to make the next round of the admissions cycle.  However, removing the bar doesn’t rule out fitting the seat on this particular graduate school roller coaster ride.

As programs and departments make the GRE optional – or in a more equitable fashion – not even accept scores for review, the question remains… which metrics will replace it?

Reducing an applicant to a set of numbers through a standardized exam is easy – and practiced throughout education from the early years of K-12 to graduate and professional schools.  However, the thought seems to be, “just give us a number for this applicant and we can feel good about admitting or denying.”  We see these potential biases towards an easy quantitative metric instead of a thoughtful review of an applicant using a qualitative assessment.

Since certain colleges have made the switch to test optional for undergraduate admissions, in a recent survey, many report general increases for “low income, underrepresented, and first generation students.”  Importantly, these institutions reported shifting to more importance on the high school transcripts and high school GPAs.  The respondents on behalf of many of these institutions also indicated concerns about the ability to predict students’ future success without the ability to use standardized tests.

Similarly, the next slippery slope at the graduate level may be the replacement of the GRE with additional weight on undergraduate GPA.  Alongside this emphasis comes the all-to-familiar tendency towards academic elitism.  Was that GPA too easy?  How rigorous was that program?  Have you ever even heard of that university?

As a proud graduate of a “who-knows-where” undergraduate institution* and a current faculty member and academic program director at a top-10 public research-intensive institution, the trend towards academic elitism is more than worrisome.  

Not only is this othering to current colleagues and academic peers, academic elitism is yet another way to entrench the systems of inequalities, access, privilege, and power that were attempted to be avoided by most institutions in the removal of the GRE requirement.  Privilege begets privilege.  The same programs and institutions feed into others.  Zip code predictions may be back to predict higher education attainment.  Further, even more importance on undergraduate GPA tends toward creating more grade anxieties, trickling out into more emails, grade complaints, academic integrity violations, and overall burden particularly on white female and minority faculty members (of all genders).  Put simply, stratifying GPA with academic elitism, even casually, replaces one problematic number with another and increases the toxicity in the system.

The various potentials for biases on many different aspects of applicants are widely known, in essays, reference letters, standardized exams, research experience, and interviews.  More holistic reviews are needed at all levels of the academic system, from admissions to promotion and tenure, including how factors for consideration are weighted.

It’s time to abandon the stale clutching of empty numbers in applicant review.  There will never be an assessment number or metric that truly represents a candidate for admissions purposes.  Holistic review of applicants is challenging, time consuming, and potentially biased, yet we know these numerical bars are arbitrary and poor metrics.  It’s time to reflect critically on application processes, create rubrics, examine our biases, recruit widely, and encourage an equitable process.  While the #GRExit debate continues to rage and be put to the vote in programs across the country, the focus on the replacement is even more important.  No matter what the next step may be, it needs to be a step forward towards more inclusive practices, not continue to reify the same unjust and elitist systems while using a different metric. 

Opinions my own and do not necessarily reflect those of any affiliated institution.

*Paraphrased and deliberately unattributed.

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