Cal-Bridge statement on suspending use of the GRE

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the many inequities and structural racism inherent in American society in spheres from healthcare to housing to jobs to education. In this last domain, the inequities created by the use standardized testing in admissions have become strikingly apparent. The recent aborted attempt by the College Board, purveyor of the SAT, to implement the “SAT at home” not only highlighted how a testing structure put profits ahead of the well-being and safety of the students it is supposed to serve, but the inherent technological demands of such a proctored test taken in students’ homes revealed how the “digital divide” plays out yet again in denying opportunity to those who need that opportunity the most. Fortunately, many (but sadly not all) universities are suspending use of the SAT and ACT for this coming academic year, including the two large public university systems in California, the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems. The UC system has gone further and is suspending the use of these tests until 2024, and may drop them entirely at that time.

A similar issue is now playing out with regard to the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), administered by the Education Testing Service (ETS). The general GRE test is required for admission by the majority of PhD programs nationally, and many programs, especially in STEM fields, also require the subject test. Due to the growing evidence of both tests’ lack of predictive ability of success in obtaining a PhD, coupled with their known racial and ethnic biases, there has been a growing movement in recent years to drop or greatly reduce the role of the GRE in graduate admissions, popularly known at #GRExit. Change has been slow, in part because graduate admissions is largely controlled by individual departments, making policy surrounding use of the GRE more decentralized than the SAT and ACT, where entire colleges and universities control the decision.

Most graduate PhD programs have not announced their position about use of the GRE this fall. Tests scheduled this spring during the pandemic shutdown were cancelled and fees were refunded. However, ETS, which administers the GRE, plans to administer a “GRE at home,” with similar technology and validity issues as the SAT test recently panned by educational experts. Meanwhile, the subject tests scheduled in April were cancelled and current plans are for only two dates for most subject tests to be taken in person in September or October, with unclear guidelines on what health safety measures will be taken, or even if such an in-person test could be taken safely at all during a global pandemic. This problem is particularly acute for students with underlying health issues or disabilities that make them particularly vulnerable to the virus, raising further equity issues. Even students without health issues will face an additional cognitive load of worrying about getting infected while they take a very high stakes test.

Dr. Emily Levesque, Assistant Professor of Astronomy at the University of Washington, recently wrote a withering critique of the process of registering for the GRE tests on Twitter, highlighting a variety of equity and fairness issues this test raises during the pandemic. Faculty in every PhD program should read this thread, especially the chair, graduate program directors, and members of the admissions committee, as well as administrators like graduate deans who administer PhD program admissions centrally. These programs should then meet immediately and vote to suspend the use of the GRE in their admissions process for the coming academic year.

On June 10, multiple organizations, including and, called for a Strike for Black Lives asking scientists around the world to take a day off from their regular activities to work together to address anti-Black racism in the academy. Almost 6000 of us participated. The most important message these groups sent to the vast majority of scientists who are not Black was to stop talking about change and take action!

The use of the GRE has always been anti-diversity and anti-inclusion and a perfect example of institutionalized racism. Practices like the use of a measurement instrument with such well-known racial, ethnic, and gender biases is what people mean when they talk about how racism is structural in the academy. Suspending the GRE for a year is a very simple and small but direct action the academy can take immediately in response to this call for action. The time has come to step up and be counted in the fight against racism in the academy. The time to act is now.

Alexander L. Rudolph, Ph.D.
Director, Cal-Bridge