Thursday, November 01, 2007

GRE - The Happy Eugenics

As many of you know, I have a certain beef with the entrance exams for graduate school, or the GRE. Admissions committees use these scores to assess whether a college student is capable of continuing on to PhD or Master's level study. There's only one problem, the test is both horribly exclusionary to underrepresented students and they're completely misused in most instances.

Ok, so that's two problems.

I'll try to not go into too much detail, but I believe the GRE is the direct offspring of the Eugenic movement's search for the intellectual superiority of white people. You're first reaction to that statement might be surprise or defensiveness, but this search was a real occurrence that happened about one century ago. The search for racial intelligence differences could even be traced back to the 16th century. However, back then, the search for these intelligence differences seemed no more controversial than GRE scores appear to us today.

Francis Galton, a relative of Charlie Darwin, wrote about psychometrics and eugenics in the late nineteenth century. He began to observe that people of African descent knew so much less than the average, cultured, Victorian white person. Maybe it was the slavery, poor living conditions, and lack of access to "proper" education, but African people seemed down-right stupid to Galton. As the unity between biological heredity and intelligence strengthened, people devised new and more refined methods of detecting someone's intellectual stature. Read the wikipedia article on this if you ever get a chance.

I don't think I have to emphasize the direct relationship between the search for intelligence, the assignment of quantitative assessment of relative academic worth, and the GRE. Both the early eugenic concept to intellectual superiority and the GRE are based on the same principles. Yet, people still use this method knowing of this racist flaw.

Of course, mentioning this discrepancy provokes a very rote response: "there is simply no other standardized way to judge people's intelligence." While being still based on the same eugenics-born mentality, there are even more flaws to that logic, even if we simply ignore the deeper context to the response. Let's take the example of a History of Science department that still uses the GRE scores to judge students. Let's assume that they have chosen to accept someone who has excellent verbal scores, but sub-standard logical reasoning scores (read: math). While I haven't looked very closely at actual numbers of times this occurs, every person who has applied to graduate school that I've spoken to has told me "admission committees don't really care about your quantitative reasoning (read: math or logical abilities)." (If you're on a History of Science admission committee, I challenge you to tell me that you haven't accepted an application that had a low logical reasoning score in the last two years because the applicant's verbal score was higher.)

Ok, so this theoretical department just made a judgment that verbal scores are more important than logical reasoning, even though the GRE is a whole test that has been broken down into constituent, scored elements (ie, verbal, math, writing, etc). Now, as I've seen, logical and methodical thought is fairly important in academic work. Yet, a committee would completely disregard a whole aspect of this test because this aspect of the test doesn't resonate with the qualities that they were assessed on when they entered graduate school. Let's be even more generous and say that someone with high verbal skills and low logic skills is more likely to fit into a department than a person with high logic skills and low verbal.

Either way, let's just hang a big sign outside the department and say "we only accept people who are like us." Of course, the department might make an exception, if you're lucky, but the message still remains, "if you're like us, you get higher priority." Even if this might not be the case, in a very rare instance, the message still remains, and those messages have their own power to exclude.

So, yes, I'm bitter about having to take the GRE. No, I didn't do poorly, either. While my verbal wasn't in the top 10% like I had hoped, it's almost there. I'm just bitter because of being forced into taking a test that makes me feel dirty. There's an element of humiliation that I don't think mainstream people feel about taking the exam. In my GRE prep book, I was informed that having an "upbeat attitude" towards the GRE makes you more likely to succeed. People who are negative or "adversarial" towards the test tend to do poorly.

Does it ever alarm them that a big chunk of those people who feel negatively about the test are under-represented students?

Which came first, the chicken or the excluded student? You decide.

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