When I was in 8th grade, approximately 25 years ago, a church member paid for me to take the SAT to practice so I could have the same opportunities as students from privileged backgrounds. Even so, by the time I was in 11th grade, my SAT scores were not competitive enough, despite taking SAT math and verbal classes at my high school. The classes still didn't help improve my scores, and my mother didn't have the money to put me in a specialized prep program. However, I became a mentee of the president of the institution that would soon be my undergraduate alma mater. He sponsored my participation in a SAT prep program being held at the college. My score increased enough to get me considered for esteemed scholarships. I credit the increase not to my improved reading and math skills, but to the prep program that taught me how to take the test.
I thought my standardized test-taking days were over, but not if I wanted to go to graduate school. While in college, I received Graduate Research Examination prep support from a summer research program. As a STEM student, I still had issues with standardized tests. Yet I was reminded that you just have to learn the test-taking strategies. Back then, Educational Testing Services, a multimillion-dollar nonprofit organization that created and administers the test, provided a full cost waiver for those who didn't have funds to pay for the test. This benefit has since been changed to only providing 50 percent support.
I share these personal stories as a young Black boy born and raised in the city of Baltimore. I am a first-generation college graduate who is now pursuing my doctorate. I was brought up in a single-parent home with a loving mother who surrounded me with a community of supporters and mentors to enrich my academic achievement. I am who I am because mentors placed me in spaces that would allow me to have equitable opportunities for success.
Now, as the director of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, McNair Scholars Program, a graduate school pipeline program, I come across students who struggle with preparing for and taking the GRE. Their challenges are often due to anxiety around test taking, stereotype threats, not having financial support for the test and prep materials, and not seeing how the test connects to their potential success in graduate school. I have had students who had to work multiple jobs and thus had a difficult time studying for the test. Yet they were exceptional students in their undergraduate programs, only to be told their GRE scores won't cut it for admission into their desired graduate program.
At the start of summer 2020, when racial tension in our country climaxed, I began to ask what my role is in breaking down the barriers that impede the success of my students. I grew up as a freedom fighter in the NAACP as a youth leader. I organized protests and stood on the right side of justice on many occasions; yet now as a program administrator, I knew I needed to do something. It became increasingly complex to motivate students to prepare to take the GRE, which disenfranchises people of color and those from low-income backgrounds. I could not sit back anymore, and I urged our UMBC administrators, faculty, staff and students to move from well-crafted statements of support to life-changing actions. In an email to a wide array of university community members, I stated,
"With all the platitudes and acknowledgments that Black Lives Matter, I want to know what actions the university and each of us is taking on dismantling white supremacy and racism that still plagues our public institutions … I am personally committing to working with anyone willing to remove the barrier of the GRE test from the graduate school acceptance at UMBC. I am calling upon a cross-section of campus leaders to join with the McNair Staff and me to ensure that UMBC gives equal opportunity to Black and Brown students who do not have access to GRE test preparation, as we know access may be the only thing the GRE is good at assessing. Many see it as irrelevant and that it has no major impact on the success of the student in Graduate School (only seems to benefit the university's data collection)."
A discussion group of over 25 people consisting of UMBC faculty, staff, students and alums assembled through monthly conversations about the GRE and its impact on our lives, and those of our students, as well as the university. We are now in conversation with university administrators, working with different departments on how they are implementing a holistic application review process. However, the working group has called for the university to do more than talk. In a memo sent at the end of April 2021, on top of asking for a universitywide elimination of the GRE requirement, we recommended the university:
- Gather assessment data from our aspirational and peer institutions.
- Develop a holistic graduate application and recommendation process.
- Create accountability procedures for programs' implementation of a holistic application process.
- Apply for grants supporting the formation of a working group and developing best practices for supporting diversity and inclusion in the admissions process.
- Develop a user-friendly website centering on holistic admissions and how each program uses the methods.
- Provide intermediate financial support for students to take the exam and send their scores to the university.
In the coming weeks, we will continue meeting with the dean of the graduate school, with the support of the president and provost. The goal is to remove barriers and not maintain obstacles under the guise of academic freedom or other university policies. I pray that one day, we will not need committees or a pandemic to determine if something is equitable. If it is a barrier for one, it is a barrier for us all. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."
The GRE does not predetermine how well a student will do in graduate school. Instead, it has allowed ETS to be the sole provider of graduate school testing for doctoral programs. Suppose universities are resolute in utilizing the GRE as part of the application process (whether using holistic admission policies or not). In that case, they need to ensure they have provided opportunities for marginalized students to receive the same prep support as all other students. They also should consider if they will provide financial support for scores to be sent and students to take the test.
Institutions must choose not only to talk about equity but demonstrate it through equitable decision making. Dismantling systemic inequities requires radical changes that will disrupt the status quo. While there are institutions that are discontinuing use of the GRE, there are others considering recommendations from the Council of Graduate Schools for holistic admissions. Holistic admission policies are one step toward equity, but institutions must be radical in the approach; otherwise, this is only a bandage on a deep-seated wound. Audre Lorde has reminded us, “For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.” I hope university leadership all across this country will see the need to dismantle standardized testing while providing equitable opportunities for students who may not have the resources to compete.