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Why I Got a Bad Score on the GRE—on Purpose: Taking a Stand for Real Education

What I learned from saying what I really thought in the essay section of an important standardized test.

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Dan Marion destroys a practice book for the GRE exam.

Dan Marion destroys a book used to practice for the GRE exam. Photo by Kristin Hugo.

Recently I took the GRE and failed the Argument Essay section. On purpose.

Many—including my parents after learning about this—will ask why. Because I don’t like standardized tests. Not just because I’ve had to take so many of them, but because of what they stand for. How they relegate people into scores. How they’ve transformed classrooms into test preparation centers. How they’ve undermined  art, music, and the inspiration of learning.

In order to call attention to the inadequacy of the GRE, I will risk my own grade and make an argument I actually believe in.

Every year more than 700,000 people take the GRE—a test used as a prerequisite for applying to graduate school. They pay $185 to the Educational Testing Service, or ETS—whose revenue in 2011 was over $1 billion—to be subjected to trap answers (ones that are half right but considered entirely wrong), pedantic vocabulary, and an entire superfluous section that does not count towards one's score but assists ETS with company research. ETS even has the audacity to suggest that the gaps in their testing can be remedied by another one of their tests, the ETS PPI, which supposedly evaluates one’s creativity, resilience, and ethics.

It all felt wrong. I wanted to prove that it was.

I looked over the practice materials and found that the best place to make my stand was the "Argument Essay," which tests whether one can insightfully evaluate the argument in a piece of writing called a "task" and communicate one's evaluation in writing. I studied numerous samples of good responses. I decided that I would do exactly what they wanted, but would create my own prompt that would allow me to criticize the GRE itself. I wanted to test whether I would be truly evaluated for the quality of my thinking and writing, or punished for not following their rules.

When the GRE gave me the prompt, I began with this salutation:

Dear ETS Grader,

I think the best way to prepare myself for critical graduate-level work is by attempting to analyze the type of survey we as students have been forced to take our whole lives. In order to call attention to the inadequacy of the GRE as a measure of a student’s quality of thinking and writing, I will risk my own grade and make an argument I actually believe in. Like Malcolm X once said, "A person who stands for nothing will fall for anything."

Then I gave them the "task" I created and would examine:

The Educational Testing Service argues that the GRE "demonstrates that you are ready for graduate-level work." The GRE tests individuals on verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing, and "provides a common measure for comparing candidates' qualifications." Doing well on the GRE can "give you more opportunities for success." Therefore, graduate schools should require that applicants submit GRE scores and use those scores to determine who is and who is not qualified for their programs.

Then I responded:

The argument is not convincing because it relies on three questionable assumptions.

First, the argument assumes that the GRE demonstrates that one is ready for graduate-level work. However, it does not explain how a test only four hours in length proves that one is capable of the rigors of graduate school, which include in-depth research, multitasking, and focused attention over long periods of study. Research suggests there is widespread disagreement about the correlation between GRE scores and graduate achievement.

Second, the argument assumes that verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing are the only requirements for success in graduate school. It ignores other skills necessary to navigate today’s increasingly technological, globalizing, and complex world, such as creativity, passion, and the ability to negotiate conflicts and form meaningful working relationships with others.

Finally, the argument assumes that GRE scores and admittance into graduate schools are correlative. However, a student may get a high score on the GRE, but not be accepted into selective graduate schools if she has no relevant experience on her résumé, comes off exceedingly bombastic in her personal essay, or has failed classes during her undergraduate experience.

After writing this, I also responded to ETS’s original prompt.

The score I received wasn't exactly terrible, but it also wasn't very good. Because the score is an average of the "Argument Essay" and one other section, it's likely that the ETS gave me a low score on my essay.

I will use my score on the GRE to apply to master’s programs in education policy and management.

By doing so, the message ETS seems to send is this: "Because you didn't follow our rules—and decided to be creative and criticize the system—you will be punished."

Imagine if a teacher said that to you, or to your child, or to a fellow colleague, or to anyone with half a brain. Would you be OK with that? And if we wouldn’t accept this attitude in a teacher, why do we accept it from a testing company? Why do we let our colleges and universities endorse it?

Cracking the GRE 2013, a book that's widely used to practice for the test, says that "You’ll do better on the GRE by putting aside your feelings about real education and surrendering yourself to the strange logic of the standardized test."

I’m tired of doing that. I’m through having to jump through hoops just because they’ve been ingrained into our society. I’m done being a name on an application. And I’m sick of how the focus on tests, statistics, and problems draws attention away from our students.

Although I may be frustrated, I’m actually thankful that I had to take the GRE. Before, I was a recent graduate trying to discover something to fight for—something to be truly passionate about. Now, I’m on a mission. I will use my score on the GRE to apply to master’s programs in education policy and management. Once I'm enrolled, I'll work to end our current means of measuring students.

Watch out, standardized tests. I—and many others with the same mission—am coming for you.


Dan Marion wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Dan is an educational intern at YES!

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