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Joshua Hall had his sights set on a doctoral program in microbiology. In his dorm, he'd taken and retaken the practice tests for the GRE, the graduate school entry exam.
On the big day, he was ready.
"So I sat down and began my test, and I remember at that time there was a section called the analytical section and this was actually the section that I tended to do the best on in the practice tests," he said.
Then things started going south. Another student came in and sat next to him.
"She was super loud, like she was crumbling some papers up and was just trying to get situated, and it was so distracting," he said. "The more distracted I got, the more nervous I became, and I started, I remember sweating, thinking like, 'Oh my gosh, I need to do well on this.' "
He did not. He bombed the GRE and had to retake it before getting into his grad program.
That was 20 years ago.
Hall went on to become director of graduate admissions at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, at Chapel Hill. He noticed something as he evaluated thousands of applicants, looked through their GRE scores, and then watched their progress at UNC.
"There didn't seem to be a correlation between the students who had the highest aptitude in the lab and the students who were getting the best GRE scores," he said.
Hall is a scientist and a researcher by training. So he did some science: He compared GRE scores and student performance. He brought his results to the admissions faculty in 2017.
"And it really was in some ways like going up against the firing squad," Hall says. "It was like, 'Wait, what do you mean the GRE isn't that useful? How could it not be useful? We've been using it for all this time.' "
Hall demonstrated that the GRE isn't all that great at predicting who succeeds in grad school. And studies at other institutions showed that the test isn't a very good predictor of who actually finishes a graduate program.
"But I can say, you know, the individuals involved in admissions committees for science programs are scientists themselves," says Hall.
Which is to say, they couldn't ignore the research. UNC's medical school made the GRE optional this year. Hall ended up compiling a list of other schools that don’t require the test, and shared it on social media.
It was 10 schools last year. Today, it's more than 130. That's just in the biomedical field.
"We've seen first a trickle and then a surge of individual graduate departments determining that the GRE was not a good tool to use to select entering grad school applicants," said Bob Schaeffer with the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.
He's a sworn enemy of basically every standardized test: SAT, ACT, GMAT, MCAT and, of course, the GRE.
"I think among the first [to go test-optional] were the divinity schools. The Harvard Divinity School was test-optional and other schools of theology," Schaeffer says.
They took it on faith. Anecdotally, the GRE didn't seem that useful, so they didn't require it. This was years before the recent surge in STEM programs dropping it.
"I think people in this STEM field watch data," he says, "and though they recognized that the test may have problems, they wanted to see the numbers."
But to Schaeffer, the real harm of the GRE isn't that it's a bad predictor of student success. It's that it seems to favor whiter, wealthier students. Minorities and poorer students tend to do worse on the test.
The GRE people are aware of this.
"So if you look at privileged students, for example, that come from high-income neighborhoods, those students on average are going to have a better educational experience than students who come from areas with less access to resources," says David Payne, vice president of Global Education at ETS, the company that makes the test.
The test is actually supposed to level the playing field, Payne says. Richer, whiter students have a better chance of getting into grad school because they tend to come from more prestigious undergrad programs. And rampant grade inflation at these places compounds their advantage, he says.
"So if you're an underrepresented minority starting at a nonselective public university, you've got two strikes against you when you're applying to a selective Ph.D. program," he says.
The idea is that an underrepresented student can study hard and bootstrap up from a state school into a top grad program on the strength of a high GRE score.
But there's a problem with that: A whole industry has sprung up around tests like the GRE, prepping students on the questions, teaching strategies for being faster and scoring higher.
At a prep center run by Princeton Review across the street from the University of Pennsylvania, one of the most selective institutions in the world, Natasha Bludgus, regional director of business development, showed me around. There's a front office and a series of classrooms with whiteboards where they basically teach the GRE and other standardized tests.
"We have so many students come in, they're great students, they're excelling in school, and then they take this test and they just feel so defeated because, you know, they just think … 'This isn't a really good representation of me,' " she says.
Bludgus said panic and even tears are not uncommon.
"These standardized-test companies are pretty much making tests to trick students and, you know, kind of be the obstacle for them to get into their college or grad program. So that's why we're here," she says. "We're here to help students overcome these tests so they can ... fulfill their dreams."
But these prep courses are expensive — some cost more than $1,000. Not all students have that kind of cash. Bludgus says they work with school districts with diverse groups of students, and offer payment plans, discounts, lots of free events and materials.
All that might not matter sooner rather than later, as more schools are going test-optional.
Some, like Emory University's chemistry department, won't even accept test results. Simon Blakey, director of graduate studies, explained why.
"Just having those numbers there, it impacts human decision-making. You can't ignore the numbers," Blakey says. "And so this year, the whole file review has taken place and none of the reviewers have had access to the GRE scores."
They won't so much as look at your GRE. Instead, they look for G-R-I-T — grit, that is.
"We focused quite deeply on the letters of recommendation and the specific research accomplishments of the students and evidence that they've overcome challenges, [for] evidence that they're resilient," he says.
Emory is a private university, and very selective. Blakey says the GRE's biases, favoring the whiter and richer, narrow the talent pool. The university could miss out on talented students from diverse backgrounds — students like Shawntel Okonkwo, a doctoral candidate in microbiology at UCLA.
"I was just a hustler when I was in college," Okonkwo says. "I made sure to find any of the resources that would make it possible for me to succeed."
She was born in the United States, but her parents are Nigerian immigrants. When it came time for her to take the GRE, she found a low-cost, mom-and-pop prep operation. It was more hacking the test than studying for it, with tips like, "It doesn't matter what you're writing, doesn't matter if it's fluffy or not. Just get it as high as possible because higher word count was correlated to a higher score," she recalls.
"So it's like, what am I doing this for? This isn't testing any intelligence."
Lucky for her, she says, she did well enough on the test to not have to retake it — it costs $205.
Okonkwo opposes the GRE because she sees it as another hurdle for people like her. And the consequences of that extend beyond the classroom, because people with Ph.D.s are often the ones steering science.
"If you don't have a diverse pool of scientists, you're going to have a perpetuation of solutions that only serve those in the majority," she says.
As an example, she explains how early HPV vaccines missed the strains of the disease that were more likely to infect black women.
Okonkwo is in her final year of study, and splits her time between school and WokeSTEM, an organization she founded that produces videos and holds workshops and talks on the idea of picturing more minorities in science.
"Maybe you wonder why the word 'scientist' doesn't bring up a mental image of a black woman or black man?" she asks in one video. "But we're out here."
Opting out of the GRE isn't a magic bullet that will fix the lack of diversity in science fields. But it could mean one less barrier for the most disadvantaged.
For everyone else, it's one less standardized test to pay for — and stress out over.
This story was originally published by WHYY.
This segment aired on June 26, 2019.
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