Where did the GRE come from?

Have you ever wondered just where the GRE came from and who thought it necessary to put you through this inordinate hell?  I have—only a couple times, but it sincerely did happen.  Honestly, with some sense that this standardized test is approaching the relative age of dirt, I’ve questioned its validity in our ever-more-connected and data-at-your-service world.  Why should I know the definition of paucity and dearth by heart when it takes less than 60 seconds to look it up online?  It’s a valid question. 

But, to be fair, I also acknowledge the idea that in pursuing academic excellence and higher education, it can be expected that the student population with the greatest potential will have absorbed some things—definitions, formulas, the capacity to write with some clarity and conviction, and the ability to read the words of others with some semblance of understanding.  And, at the same time, it’s possible to get through your time as an undergrad without sincerely absorbing that much.  And, for a multitude of reasons (self-centered and student-centered, both), colleges and universities want their graduate students to do well—to succeed in gaining their various degrees. 

But, because we have yet to uncover the wizardry with which we will eventually scan your melon and determine your smarts (Metimur Potentia!), alas, we have standardized testing and, specifically, the GRE (amongst others).  I don’t much like it, and you might not much like it either (maybe you do; maybe that’s how you roll), but it does make some sense.  Needless to say, it’s been a commonly accepted approach for some time now, and chances are it will stick with us well into the future.  This brings (some of) us to wondering where it came from and how.

Curious as to how this often-painful rite of passage came about, I did a little digging online.  I had visions of academics and researchers toiling away by candlelight with furrowed brows and strong dispositions.  Heated arguments would ensue.  There might be pens thrown <gasp> or rumpled papers strewn about.  Would I stumble across a love story, a battle of wits, or, perhaps, a victory against all odds?  Yeah… No.  No, I would not.  What I did find was a lot of fair-enough-looks-legit facts, but nothing in the way of entertaining narratives.  I had hoped for something more along the lines of The Professor and the Madman, but what I got was, although scholarly and admirable, a little boring—possibly a lot boring.  No love, no battle, no odds, no asylum: no story.  Phhhllbt.

So, if you’re still curious (sure you are!), I’ll summarize the facts, which I’ve gathered and assimilated from a cornucopia of online resources (cornucopias are fun).  If you’re even more curious than that, see for yourself by visiting some of the links tacked onto the end of this blog post.

What It Is Today (For Those Who Have Not Yet Felt Its Fury)

The Graduate Record Examination or GRE is an exhaustive (read: exhaustive) test commonly used as a benchmark for admissions into various university graduate programs in the US and the UK (and sometimes Germany, and France, and Spain, and Italy…).  It is administrated by the Educational Testing Service or ETS.  Although I was unable to put my thumb on the exact number of institutions and/or graduate programs currently requiring or approved to accept GRE scores, just know that the list is sweeping and thorough (I found it, but I declined to sit and count).  This exam is completed by a host of aspiring graduate students—of which, 44% are younger than 23 years of age on test day (most likely taking the exam while in college), 88% are 30 or younger, and only 4% are older than 40.  Test-takers’ intended fields of study are numerous and include (in order of frequency) life sciences, engineering, physical sciences, social sciences, business, education, humanities and arts, and the ever-popular other/undecided.

Comprised of analytical writing, quantitative, and verbal reasoning sections, the GRE is available in computer-based (typical) and paper-based (less common) formats and consumes the better part of four long and important hours, including sanctioned breaks.  It is offered in about 1000 testing centers in 160 countries and attempted annually by approximately half a million aspiring graduate students hailing from some 230 nations.  Despite its global reach, the GRE, however, is only administered in English.  (Native speakers, count your blessings.)

Within the GRE, the quantitative and verbal sections each come with a potential scoring range of 130 to 170 points (in 1-point increments), and the analytical writing portion is measured on a scale of 0.0 to 6.0 points (in .5-point increments).  Average scores in the quantitative and verbal sections sit around 150 to 152, and the same for analytical writing is about 3.5.  A test-taker’s score is considered valid for five years but the acceptance of aging scores (and applicant scores attained) varies from one institution to the next. 


Where It Came From (Stay with Me)

To better understand the inception and the popular acceptance and usage of the GRE, it helps to have some grasp of the American educational landscape after World War II.  As the war was winding down (it would officially end in 1945) Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill.   The G.I. Bill offered a host of benefits to returning veterans, chief among them included dedicated payments to fund the pursuit of higher education.  Prior to World War II (1937), a scant 15% of 18- to 20-year-olds attended college, most of which came directly from high school and out of the wealthiest homes.  With the G.I. Bill in place, however, perceptions (as they related to higher education) were changed and America embraced a much broader and more diverse student population.  Enrollments were increased exponentially as WWII veterans (and, eventually, their children—the baby boomers) attended college in unprecedented numbers.  For decades after the G.I. Bill, America saw development of the modern research university, comprehensive state colleges, vast expansion of community-based colleges, and a proliferation of investments in academic financial aid.    Enrollment nearly doubled from 1940 to 1950, surging from 1.5 million to almost 2.7 million (and sits at nearly 17 million today).

I found one relevant authority that seemed to indicate that the GRE has been around since 1936, but I suspect they were blurring the line between its inception and its broader application.  Originally, the GRE was an offshoot of an endeavor headed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (CFAT) in the 1930s.  It was initially implemented experimentally at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia University.  And, in 1938, Wisconsin University became the first public institution to ask that their students take the test.

In 1940, one Dewey Stuit, an American educational psychologist and academic administrator, analyzed trial runs of the GRE at the University of Iowa (go Hawkeyes!) for the sake of further development.  In 1942, it was administered at Texas Tech University (go Red Raiders!).  In 1943, examinations were conducted at Michigan State University (I here Lansing is lovely this time of year) and analyzed by American educational psychologist and former statistician, Paul Dressel.

In 1947, the American Council on Education (ACE), The College Entrance Examination Board, and CFAT formed the non-profit organization we know as ETS.  Otherwise unequipped to meet the needs of a functioning assessment program, ETS was established to oversee the testing activities of its founding agencies and to further conduct the research needed to advance its inherited cause.  Intended to promote objectivity and a level playing field in the realm of graduate school admissions, widespread use of the GRE only came into being when a more diverse student body sought to attain graduate degrees after World War II.  Because of their ever-expanding origins admissions committees embraced the GRE as a standardized means by which to measure their applicants’ potential for finding success in graduate school and achieving advanced degrees.  In 1948, over 45,000 students applying to 500 colleges completed the GRE, and, according to most sources, it was officially launched, as we know it, in 1949. 

How It’s Changed (Not That Much)

In the early days, the GRE contained questions designated for the measurement of verbal and quantitative ability only.  Some years prior to well-documented changes enacted in 2002 (online sources opted not to specify exactly when), the Analytical Ability section was put in place to measure individuals’ logical and analytical reasoning abilities.  This assessment category was eventually replaced by the Analytical Writing Assessment (presumably in 2002), which has since remained largely unchanged.


A few years later, in 2006, ETS publicly declared it had plans to execute significant changes in the GRE’s format.  Rife with anticipation (or not), perspective test-takers were expecting a new grading scale, longer testing windows, changes to the computer-adaptive approach, and increased focus on reasoning and critical thinking for the quantitative and qualitative sections.  But, in the spring of 2007, ETS announced it had changed its mind—out of concern for even-handed and appropriate implementation of the aforementioned adjustments.  Although, in the same breath, they maintained that they still intended to rework the GRE one way or another, ETS did not, at that time, specify how.

In the fall of that same year (2007), new question types were added to the test.  For the most part, these were comprised of the fill-in-the-blank sort that were added to the quantitative section (replacing just a few that were previously multiple-choice), as well as newly formatted select-one-or-more type questions.  Early in 2008 (January), ETS reformatted the passages in the Reading Comprehension segment of the GRE; it implemented highlighting in place of line numbers as needed to call test-takers’ attention to specific information within (for reference, in short).

ETS declared its intentions for another round of changes to the GRE in December of 2009.  These were expected to (and did, in fact) take effect in 2011.  One of the most significant overhauls would be that of the scoring scale.  In place of the old 200 to 800 range (measured in 10-point increments), ETS would use the now-familiar 130-170 (measured in 1-point increments).  They also indicated they would eliminate antonym- and analogy-related question types, reduce emphasis on rote vocabulary memorization, replace Sentence Completion with Text Completion (sounds awfully similar).  They also added an online calculator (woohoo!) and got rid of the old CAT question-by-question adaptivity in favor of section-by-section (meaning that a test-taker’s performance is evaluated on the first math and verbal sections which then determine the difficulty of the next round).  And, finally, ETS also added select-one-or-more type questions to its Reading Comprehension section.  But, outside of all that, the GRE has maintained the general section formats and question types that have been in place since its inception and initial trials +/- 70 years ago.

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