In the graduate school admissions process, the level of emphasis that is placed upon GRE scores varies widely between schools and even departments within schools. The importance of a GRE score can range from being an important selection factor to being a mere admission formality.
Critics of the GRE have argued that the exam format is so rigid that it effectively tests only how well a student can conform to a standardized test taking procedure. ETS responded by announcing plans in 2006 to radically redesign the test structure starting in the fall of 2007; however, the company has since announced, "Plans for launching an entirely new test all at once were dropped, and ETS decided to introduce new question types and improvements gradually over time." The new questions have been gradually introduced since November of 2007.
If the experimental section appears as an analytical writing question (essay), if an "issue" type question is presented, a choice between two topics will not be given. This coupled with the fact that the true analytical writing section is the first test given can help the test-taker to deduce which is the experimental section and the taker can thus lower the importance of that section.
The first question that is given in a multiple-choice section is considered to be an "average level" question that half of the GRE test takers will answer correctly. If the question is answered correctly, then subsequent questions become more difficult. If the question is answered incorrectly, then subsequent questions become easier, until a question is answered correctly. This approach to administration yields scores that are of similar accuracy while using approximately half as many items. However, this effect is moderated with the GRE because it has a fixed length; true CATs are variable-length, where the test will stop itself once it has zeroed in on a candidate's ability level.
The actual scoring of the test is done with item response theory (IRT). While CAT is associated with IRT, IRT is actually used to score non-CAT exams. The GRE subject tests, which are administered in the traditional paper-and-pencil format, use the same IRT scoring algorithm. The difference that CAT provides is that items are dynamically selected so that the test taker only sees items of appropriate difficulty. Besides the psychometric benefits, this has the added benefit of not wasting the examinee's time by administering items that are far too hard or easy. This occurs in fixed-form testing.
|Verbal Reasoning %||Quantitative Reasoning %|
Comparisons for "Intended Graduate Major" are "limited to those who earned their college degrees up to two years prior to the test date." ETS provides no score data for "non-traditional" students who have been out of school more than two years, although their own report "RR-99-16" indicated that 22% of all test takers in 1996 were over the age of 30.
Unlike other standardized admissions tests (such as the SAT, LSAT, and MCAT), the use and weight of GRE scores vary considerably not only from school to school, but from department to department, and from program to program too. Programs in liberal arts topics may only consider the applicant's verbal score to be of interest, while math and science programs may only consider quantitative ability; however, since most applicants to math, science, or engineering graduate programs all have high quantitative scores, the verbal score can become a deciding factor even in these programs. Some schools use the GRE in admissions decisions, but not in funding decisions; others use the GRE for the selection of scholarship and fellowship candidates, but not for admissions. In some cases, the GRE may be a general requirement for graduate admissions imposed by the university, while particular departments may not consider the scores at all. Graduate schools will typically provide information about how the GRE is considered in admissions and funding decisions, and the average scores of previously admitted students. The best way to find out how a particular school or program evaluates a GRE score in the admissions process is to contact the person in charge of graduate admissions for the specific program in question (and not the graduate school in general). Programs that involve significant expository writing require the submission of a prepared writing sample that is considered more useful in determining writing ability than the analytical writing section; however, the writing scores of foreign students are sometimes given more scrutiny and are used as an indicator of overall comfort with and mastery of conversational English.
ETS has claimed that content of the GRE is "un-coachable"; however, many test preparation companies like IMS Learning Resources, VISU etc claim that the test format is so rigid that familiarizing oneself with the test's organization, timing, specific foci, and the use of process of elimination is the best way to increase a GRE score.
While the general and subject tests are held at many undergraduate institutions, the computer-based general test is only held at test centers with appropriate technological accommodations. Students in major cities in the US, or those attending large US universities, will usually find a nearby test center, while those in more isolated areas may have to travel a few hours to an urban or university location. Many industrialized countries also have test centers, but at times test-takers must cross country borders (see GRE website for details).
Test takers complain about the strict test center rules. For instance, test takers may not use pens or bring their own scratch paper. Paper and pencils are provided at the testing center. Food and drink are prohibited in the test centers, as are chewing gum, jackets and hats.
Critics have claimed that the computer-adaptive methodology may discourage some test takers, because the question difficulty changes with performance. For example, if the test-taker is presented with remarkably easy questions half way into the exam, they may infer that they are not performing well, which will influence their abilities as the exam continues, even though question difficulty is subjective.
Critics have also stated that the computer-adaptive method of placing more weight on the first several questions is biased against test takers who typically perform poorly at the beginning of a test due to stress or confusion before becoming more comfortable as the exam continues.
The GRE has also been subjected to the same racial bias criticisms that have been lodged against other admissions tests. In 1998, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education noted that the mean score for black test-takers in 1996 was 389 on the verbal section, 409 on the quantitative section, and 423 on the analytic, while white test-takers averaged 496, 538, and 564, respectively.
There is also a bias towards those students who have the financial resources to take privately owned test taking classes. These classes do typically result in better scores; however, many such companies and tutors focus solely on how to use the test's format to one's advantage, and not how to actually learn the material on the exam. In the United States, the cost of the general test is $140 US as of July 1, 2008, although ETS will reduce the fee under certain circumstances.
While the verbal section tests vocabulary and verbal reasoning, the vocabulary employed is not specifically relevant to any particular area of study, and (in the case of analogies and antonyms) is presented without context. The quantitative portion of the test covers topics that are far too elementary for any program in the fields of math or science, as well as being irrelevant for the study of most liberal arts topics. The Analytic Writing section (derived from ETS' unpopular Writing Assessment Test) may be less useful in assessing writing ability than a prepared writing sample, or than a 'Personal Statement' or 'Statement of purpose' relevant to the appropriate field (which is also required for admissions by many programs).
Dr. Robert Sternberg of Tufts University found that the GRE general test was weakly predictive of success in graduate studies in psychology. The weak predictability may be related to the mathematics portion of the GRE general test because a good foundation of mathematics is important in understanding advanced statistics. However, in some branches of psychology, the application of statistics is only a small part.
The mathematical portion of the GRE general test is the only area of the GRE general test that may have predictive ability in the natural sciences. The natural sciences require a strong foundation in mathematics for success in both core courses and in statistical analysis related to research. However, it is not clear whether the GRE accurately assesses mathematical skills required for success in graduate school.
Recent reports and questionnaires have shown that the GRE General Test is not as significant in determining graduate admissions as once believed and that some schools are moving away from placing an emphasis on high GRE scores.
However, when the analysis is extended to review of the literature in the past, such a review appeared in a 1985 issue of the journal Research in Higher Education. Over eighty pages in length, it is one of the most exhaustive literature reviews on the question of test validity. The author Leonard Baird focused on studies completed between 1966 and 1984, reported in any of nineteen highly-regarded scholarly journals. In study after study many of the reported correlation coefficients were zero or near zero, and some studies even showed significant negative coefficients. Most striking, many of these negative correlations appear in the studies concerning the relationship between test scores and the number of publications and citations for graduates of PhD programs. For instance: "Clark and Centra studied two samples of doctoral recipients… The resulting sample consisted of 239 chemists, 142 historians, and 221 psychologists, all of whom had at least one GRE score. In chemistry, the correlation of number of articles and book chapters with GRE-verbal was -.02; with GRE-quantitative it was -.01; and with GRE-advanced it was .15… For all historians, these correlations were -.24, -.14, and .00. For all psychologists, the correlations were -.05, -.02, and .02. Clark and Centra also examined the distribution of number of publications by GRE scores. The distributions were essentially flat, with no particular trend. In fact, the largest number of publications was reported by the lowest scoring groups in all three fields(emphasis added)."
Currently the GRE Scores are valid for 5 years.
In 2006, ETS announced plans to enact significant changes in the format of the GRE. Planned changes for the revised GRE included a longer testing time, a departure from computer-adaptive testing, a new grading scale, and an enhanced focus on reasoning skills and critical thinking for both the quantitative and qualitative sections.
On April 2, 2007, ETS announced the decision to cancel plans for revising the GRE. The announcement cited concerns over the ability to provide clear and equal access to the new test after the planned change as an explanation for the cancellation. They did state, however, that they do plan "to implement many of the planned test content improvements in the future", although exact details regarding those changes have not yet been announced.
Changes to the GRE will begin to take effect on November 1, 2007, as ETS will start to include new types of questions in the exam. The changes mostly center on "fill in the blank" type answers for both the math and vocabulary sections that require the test-taker to fill in the blank directly, without being able to choose from a multiple choice list of answers. ETS currently plans to introduce two of these new types of questions in each qualitative or vocabulary section, while the majority of questions will presented in the regular format.
On January 2008, the Reading Comprehension within the verbal sections has been reformatted, passages's "line numbers will be replaced with highlighting when necessary in order to focus the test taker on specific information in the passage" to "help students more easily find the pertinent information in reading passages.