The Meaning of “Standardized Test”
I met an interesting student at the GRE practice test I presented last night. The gentleman was a math major and finished the test quite early, thanks in part to his obliteration of the quantitative section. He felt that his math training had given him a huge advantage, and he argued passionately that the GRE wasn’t a standardized test. How can the GRE claim to give everyone a level playing field, he said, when people with certain backgrounds clearly have an edge?
That is a terrific question, and I think you’ll enjoy the answer.
The GRE is, in fact, a standardized test. Yet the playing field it offers clearly isn’t level. Give the GRE to 100 people who have never taken it before, and some will do much better than others. What gives?
What gives is that “provides a level playing field” is not the meaning of “standardized.” The phrase “standardized test” is such a staple of common language that it seems the precise meaning of the word has become lost. Let’s patch that up.
Consider the following question:
In the novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, what does the protagonist discover is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?
A) To be happy
B) To help others
C) To exist and to multiply
Would that question ever appear on the GRE? Of course not. To answer it, you’d need to have read or at least heard of the book, and questions like that never appear on the GRE. And BOOM: any time you confidently declare, “A question like that would never appear on the GRE,” that’s what it means for the GRE to be standardized.
When you first sit down to study for the GRE, you may feel that you know nothing about it. But because it’s standardized, you actually know a lot. You know how many sections there are, how many questions are in each, and how much time you’ll be given. You know that you’ll take the test on a computer, be given a pencil and scratch paper, and have an on-screen calculator. You know that the GRE tests algebra but not trigonometry; obscure vocabulary but not Douglas Adams novels. You know how it’s scored, and that your 150 or 160 or 170 is as good as anyone else’s 150 or 160 or 170, no matter when or where they take it. And you know that none of this is ever going to change — at least, not without an announcement from ETS and plenty of advance warning.
Standardized is just a fancy word for “consistent.” If you and I take the GRE, we both can trust that we are taking “the same test” — even if we take it thousands of days and thousands of miles apart. We’ll see different problems, of course, but there’s no risk that I’ll have to solve an integral or that you’ll need to analyze Dante’s Inferno in the original Italian. Tests have to be standardized or else they won’t be any use to schools. If you score a 165 on quant and your friend scores a 155, grad schools won’t be able to derive any meaning from the 10 point difference if there’s a chance that your friend had to solve differential equations and you didn’t.
So that’s what it means for the GRE to be standardized: it poses comparable questions under comparable conditions to everyone. That does not mean it’s designed to pose everyone a comparable challenge. If the sum of your life experiences have made you a better critical thinker, test taker, and creative problem solver, then you’ll do better starting out on the GRE than someone whose natural inclinations have led them to develop their mind along other avenues.