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Graduate programs drop GRE after online version raises concerns about fairness

As COVID-19 swept across the United States, standardized testing centers closed and the GRE General Test—an exam that’s required for admission to many U.S. graduate programs—went online. The Educational Testing Service (ETS), which offers the GRE, “completely revamped its delivery model so [aspiring graduate students] can test from the safety of home,” it declared in May. Since then, though, scores of academics have raised concerns about the equity of the online version of the test, arguing it disadvantages prospective students from rural and low-income backgrounds. “If I were ... a student trying to take this exam, satisfying [the online testing] criteria would be extremely difficult for me,” says Emily Levesque, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Levesque wrote about ETS’s requirements in a Twitter thread this month, detailing what she sees as “a shopping list of hurdles.” Test takers must have access to a computer with a webcam—“tablets and smartphones won’t cut it,” she wrote—as well as a private room in a home with a stable internet connection. Libraries and other public spaces are out. “We already know from virtual teaching this spring that not all students/prospective grads have access to [computers] in their homes,” she wrote.

On top of that, test takers must have a whiteboard if they want to take notes, sit in a standard—not “overstuffed”—chair, and ensure that no one enters their room for the duration of the 4-hour test. In a statement, Alberto Acereda, executive director of higher education at ETS, wrote that the rules are “necessary to ensure the testing experience is similar to that in a test center, as well as to maintain the security and integrity of the test.”

Natasha Hodges knows about the challenges of the at-home GRE firsthand. She signed up for a slot in June after her in-person appointment to take the GRE was canceled. But she ran into problems when she couldn’t install the proctoring software on her Apple laptop. “No matter how many people I chatted with, or how many times I’ve called or emailed them, no one can explain to me or even address [my problem],” she says.  

Other test takers have reported problems on test day. One prospective graduate student who lives in the Philippines and wished to remain anonymous called her experience a “nightmare.” She had connection and technical issues that delayed her start time by 90 minutes. “I was not in the right mindset when I started the actual test,” she says. Another test taker—Madi Mollico—says her test went fine, but that the proctoring experience was “nerve-wracking and anxiety-inducing.” She had expected to see her proctor on the screen, but when she started the test, she was unnerved to discover that he could see her, but she couldn’t see him. “He kept calling me sweetheart, which … definitely felt a little bit condescending,” she says.

For some academic departments—especially those that were already questioning the value of the GRE—the burdensome requirements of the at-home test are a tipping point. Levesque’s department decided to temporarily suspend requiring GRE scores. “It was simply a question of access,” she says. “If we require the exam this year, that puts an excessive burden on folks we want to encourage to apply.”

Other departments have decided to forgo the GRE for good. “We’ve been thinking about [eliminating it] for a long time,” says Chrissy Wiederwohl, assistant department head for engagement and graduate affairs for Texas A&M University, College Station’s oceanography department, which voted to stop requiring GRE scores earlier this month. “COVID is what helped front-burner it.”

Levesque’s and Wiederwohl’s departments join a growing list of U.S. graduate programs that have moved away from the GRE in recent years. In 2018 alone, 44% of the country’s top molecular biology programs dropped the GRE as an application requirement, according to an investigation by Science Careers. Dubbed “GRExit,” the movement has been fueled by concerns that the GRE doesn’t predict student success in graduate school, and that its use in admissions decisions disadvantages applicants from underrepresented groups.

Delia Shelton, a Black psychologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, says when she was applying to graduate schools, taking the GRE was a hardship; it was expensive and she had to drive 2 hours to her testing location. Her scores prevented her from applying to some programs that specified a cutoff for applicants. Yet she’s done well for herself in academia, winning a prestigious fellowship from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and an assistant professorship at her university. She and her colleagues voted earlier this month to eliminate the GRE from admissions requirements. The scores “don’t speak to how well you can do in graduate school,” she says.

Others disagree and see value in assessing GRE scores. Acereda emphasized that the scores should be viewed as part of a holistic review process, one that also looks at reference letters, essays, and other application materials. Maurice Taylor—vice president for academic outreach and engagement at Morgan State University and a member of ETS’s diversity, equity, and inclusion advisory committee—adds that applicants often have vastly different experiences at their undergraduate institutions. So, the GRE is one way to evaluate prospective students’ knowledge in a standardized way, he says.

But there is still the question of who has access to the test in the first place. “The socioeconomic constraints [of] standardized testing ... [are] well documented, and I think this at-home test exacerbates some of those,” says Joshua Hall, director of admissions for the biological and biomedical science program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who maintains a list of roughly 300 life science programs that have joined GRExit. Hall estimates that 15 programs have contacted him since the start of the pandemic asking to be added to his list.

Acereda acknowledged that “there are circumstances, some stemming from the digital divide, that make it difficult for some test takers to take advantage of our home test offering.” But he added that more than 1000 test centers have already reopened. “As the world continues to reopen after COVID, test takers will have greater choice regarding where they would like to test.”

This year, however, some simply gave up. Hodges says that after failing to resolve her technical issues, she was pleased to discover that many of the microbiology Ph.D. programs she wants to apply to have waived the GRE as an application requirement. “It ends up working out that I don’t end up having to take it anyway,” she says.

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