The Joy of Standardized Testing (Not!)


With a bit of a lull in my chess schedule (I haven’t played a tournament since the SPICE Cup ended on September 27), I had decided to take the GRE to get it out of the way. I’m not applying to graduate school this fall, but as I’m likely to at some point, it’d be nice to take it when I’m not particularly busy with a tournament or job.

It’s been a while since I’ve taken a test of any kind and even longer since I’ve taken a standardized test. This was also the first time I took a computer-adaptive test. While the GRE is supposed to be an exam that pretty much all prospective graduate students take, I was surprised by the subject content.

On the one hand, the verbal section was quite difficult. I was happy with my score, but it could easily have gone the other way had I not been exposed to some of the more difficult words. Is a vocabulary test the best measure of how well a prospective graduate student is going to do? I highly doubt it.

One of the more difficult words I had to identify (and did) on a practice test was nostrum. While some words were part of a practice vocabulary list culled from a prep book, nostrum wasn’t such a word. Luckily, though, I have seen pretty much every Seinfeld episode and had done a little research.

In one of the episodes where he pretends to be a doctor, Kramer plays the role of Dr. Peter Van Nostrum. Take a look at:

He pretends to be a similar doctor when he “diagnoses” George Costanza’s boss with a potentially dangerous mole. A little trivia behind the episode reveals that nostrum means “a usually questionable remedy or scheme.” Luckily that pointed to panacea as the antonym and I was in business. But, as the test is adaptive, answering such a question incorrectly could lead to a much lower score, and so once you miss a question, it lowers your score and gives you a simpler question. Especially near the start of the test when the program’s “prediction” of your score is moving around much more, this takes on increased importance.

Meanwhile, the math section is quite sad in my view. Despite being a test for college graduates, the math on the section is not really any more difficult than on the SAT and is at a basic high-school level. It tests basic arithmetic, algebra, and geometry – if you’re doing well, you might get a simple statistics or probability question. Why even bother making a math test like this? Getting a perfect score means you’re only in about the 95th percentile. These schools can already get our SAT score without too much trouble – why make people jump through the same hoop so many times?

The only section that seems to test something really relevant is the analytical writing section. You have to write two essays, one presenting an argument in favor of or against a claim and then one analyzing an argument presented to you. This actually does test your ability to think logically while also allowing you to demonstrate a command of the language. For pretty much any graduate student, this seems like an important skill. The math and verbal sections, though, are pretty much useless in my view. Instead, a specific subject test of your desired field seems to be more appropriate.

Another strange part of the exam experience is the strict rules at the testing center. No food or drink is permitted in the testing hall (which I guess makes some sense, since they don’t want people spilling stuff on the computers), but they even have policies on the number of tissues you can take in! Another test-taker had a runny nose and took 3 tissues from the Kleenex box. The proctor immediately told him that there was a limit of 2 tissues in the room at any given time, and that if he wanted to blow his nose, he would have to exit the room (which involves showing ID and signing in and out)!

By the way, I gave an example of a word from a practice test because as part of a confidentiality agreement that every test-taker is bound by, I can’t talk about any question that I actually received on the test. This might partly be a result an ETS mistake, whereby their question pool is relatively small, and so questions can get repeated if you sit for the exam more than once. This was more of an issue in the mid-1990s, but I would hope it’s been resolved by now. I don’t plan on taking the GRE again, but if the question pool is still pretty small, then that could introduce a lot of bias into the scores.


3 responses to “The Joy of Standardized Testing (Not!)

  1. Hey there,

    I was wondering what kind of graduate school you were considering. Something in the sciences or engineering?

  2. I’m glad nostrum wasn’t on the test when I took it!

    • @AnlamK – I’m not sure yet, but I did political economy (more of economics really) and statistics as an undergrad at Cal, so it’d probably be something along those lines.

      @knightstango – Wait, watching Seinfeld wasn’t listed as a study tip in your GRE prep book? =)

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