In August of 2012, after 20 years of working in the field of education, I decided to take the GRE. It was a decision I made despite the fact that the GRE is against everything that I believe about education and learning. Because of this it pained me to pay ETS and to buy into the system in this way, literally. For a variety of reasons though I thought it could be useful to take and, in truth, I was curious. With standardized testing such the rage in education right now, I was wondering how I would do on one of these tests after 20 years as a professional in the field, as a moderately successful student before that, and a person who stays fairly current, is reasonably well-read and writes online frequently.
Well, I failed. Badly.
“Did I study?” my friends asked. Yes, I did study. I knew that my math skills, which were reasonably good in high school, were very very rusty having done little beyond the basics now for a couple decades. And it turned out it was kind of fun too – remembering how to solve problems, figure out the length of sides and degree of angles, solving for %s. In some cases helpful too. I also worked on vocabulary – downloaded apps that I would play with in those in-between moments, take practice tests, etc.
“Maybe it’s because you have such a bad attitude about the GRE” they would then conjecture. Sure, I’m positive that was a factor. Having everything I viscerally believed about standardized testing confirmed by Nicholas Lehmann back in the 90s, I have never looked back. I’m sure that somewhere in the back of my mind there are elements of resistance kicking that got in the way. Even so, on top of practicing for months, I even took a full week of my vacation to focus. Though I am a critic, I wasn’t trying to fail. In fact, I was trying to succeed!
So … maybe you know this if you’ve taken this test anytime in recent history. But first you get to the study center and they ask you to leave everything behind in lockers – nothing can come with you. No watches, calculators, etc. let alone smart phones, etc. Then because you arrived early, you wait. Anxiously. I saw people – most much younger than me – in the waiting room literally still studying, cramming, before they go in. Some were actually sweating and most tap their feet or fingers or some parts of themselves with nervousness.
This was not a happy environment. And the walls were painted that mental hospital green, I suppose to keep us feeling calm. But, at least for me, it just cast a sickly gloom on top of everything else around me. No one smiled. This was not a place to be smiley.
Finally it was my turn. I enter the test center main doorway after signing some sort of agreement (I don’t remember what I signed … a promise to not disclose, I believe), was wanded by security, and pointed to my cube. I got one pencil, one scrap of paper and an old computer (monochrome screen, flat keyboard). Oh, and optional headphones that I suppose could have used to block out any additional noise since there was clearly no music around to tap into.
I truly felt like I had entered a dystopic novel.
Finally I start to take the test. All that fun I had solving math problems was very helpful and calmed me down right away … I know how to do this one, and this one … and I started to go through them at a steady consistent pace. I didn’t linger too long if I was stuck, planning to come back to those I found harder, I double-checked my answers in quick ways I learned, I got the easier ones out of the way.
I was barely half-way done when the timer timed out.
Next up verbal and quantitative reasoning. This part was generally fine and I even had time to go back and review. Wheew. But then, the Analytical Writing section was next. This section is meant to measure “your ability to articulate complex ideas clearly and effectively; support ideas with relevant reasons and examples; examine claims and accompanying evidence; sustain a well-focused, coherent discussion; control the elements of standard written English.” This is the part graded by both one “one trained reader, using a six-point holistic scale” and “reviewed by e-rater, a computerized program developed by ETS, which is used to monitor the human reader.”
I was asked to write to an “issue task” prompt first with an essay in response to the prompt. I had 20 minutes. The prompt was, in my mind, a complicated philosophical question and the tool I was using was a crude word processing program.
I barely got my thoughts together by the time the 20 minutes had ended.
By this time I was shaken – I’d timed out on 2 of the 3 sections. The next ones went almost the same way, with me not able to complete the math on time, finishing the reasoning part but unable to complete a decent essay in 20 minutes. I probably got a little further on the math second time around and I did at least complete an essay this time – the “argument task” prompt was, to me, more straight forward – but my answer was truthfully fairly idiotic, IMHO. I was really just trying to get something finished and didn’t really care what I had to say to do so.
So no need for me to share my actual score – you can probably guess how this turned out in the end. I walked away a bit upset but ultimately had to have a sense of humor about the whole thing mostly because it wasn’t a high stakes situation for me (I did not send my score anywhere!). But, as a person in that room among all the others, I knew my low-stakes situation was privileged. For most of them, this was a really big deal. Although, as ETS will let you know, you can choose to cancel your scores after taking the test and “canceled scores are not added to your permanent record.” However, “If you wish to take the test again, you must reregister and submit another test payment.” (Which, I believe at the time I took it, cost $120.)
Oy. Besides all of this, I really did try to notice what this test did test in me, besides the ability to take the test in the allotted time with the allotted tools in the allotted conditions that they provided. And as generally self-reflective person, I have failed to come up with anything more than that. What I know now is that I am a poor “Computer-based GRE® revised General Test” taker. I’m not sure that there is anything else to know.
All this to say that I remain very disturbed by what standardized testing experience means on the greater scale. I am very disturbed when I watch Frontline’s replay of the Michelle Rhee story in DC that standardized test-scores were, and remain, a prevailing factor in assessing success for youth as well as for teachers and administrators. In Philadelphia where you read about the same kind of testing scandal taking place that you saw in DC, you don’t have to dig far to see that there are actually thousands of examples of this across the country. And I am disturbed by sanctions Seattle teachers face for boycotting tests that they believe, as professionals in their field, are inherently flawed and don’t show student learning**.
As Yong Zhou wrote after scandals were reported in Atlanta, “[This] should serve as a wake-up call to proponents of test-driven reform policies: it’s time to abandon high stakes testing in our schools. Decades of high-stakes testing has not brought improvement but has corrupted our schools. The cost is too high.”
On the post-secondary level too, what we know is that the GRE is an artifact of a school of thought that chose to make higher education a meritocracy yet so many of them continue to require it even today*.
With roots in intelligence testing that go back generations, the mental measurement establishment continues to define merit largely in terms of potential ability rather than actual performance. The case against standardized mental testing is as intellectually and ethically rigorous as any argument about social policy in the past twenty years. And yet such testing continues to dominate the education system, carving further inroads into the employment arena as well, having been bolstered in recent years by a conservative backlash advocating advancement by “merit.”
Like a drug addict who knows he should quit, America is hooked. We are a nation of standardized-testing junkies.
Meritocracy’s Crooked Yardstick, FairTest.org, August 21, 2007
I do not believe in meritocracy in education – for youth or adults. I believe learning should be a democracy and in fact, institutions of learning should be our most democratic space for both practice and for social renewal.
(*Note: I chose to come to Arcadia University for my masters’ degree in Education because, at least in this school, they do not require the GRE for admission. I applaud them for making this decision. See FairTest.org’s list of 4-year colleges and universities with test optional admission policies.)
(**Second note added a bit later because so important: Scrap the MAP! Solidarity with Seattle teachers boycotting the MAP test)