Me vs. The Stinkin’ GREs: in which I start to click…

In which the author, a 54 year old with 30 years in the field of mathematics education, takes the GREs, his first attempt at taking a standardized test in almost 30 years. To see the first post of this series, check this link

With the two essays dispatched, I was given a 5 minute pause to regroup and psych myself up for the sections of the test which my high school physics teacher jokingly referred to as “multiple guess.” Once again, I rubbed my eyes and then shut them for a few minutes in an attempt to do some mindfullness meditation, which, from what I understand, is a very effective technique to help focus one’s attention, according to some recently published research.

I opened my eyes, watched the timer count down, clicked the mouse and was plunged into the first section: verbal reasoning. If you were around for the old days of SATs, you might believe that this consisted of questions like “lugubrious is to recalcitrant as avuncular is to a) tomato, b) insidious, c) recombinant and d) The Bay City Rollers. Times have changed and so has the GRE: the contemporary version is a sentence containing one or more missing words, and a list of replacement terms underneath that are needed to complete the sentence. But here’s the thing: you have to choose 2 out of 5 words to make the sentence mean the same thing.

Times have changed, but has Barbie (or the GRE?)

So, it really is the same thing, just in a different format, much like a Barbie doll matched up with a new outfit. Same old, same old. I would have thought that after 30 years the test could have evolved somewhat, but apparently there’s just only so many ways you can test someone on verbal reasoning (notice, however, that it is called “reasoning” and not “ability.”)

While the sentence completion tasks were kind of “fun” (well, as fun as one can imagine while being forced to do something completely inane), the reading comprehension and analysis was tedious and exhausting. Passage after passage would appear before my eyes, usually 3 – 5 paragraphs long on obscure topics drawn from anthropology, science, literature and the arts. The worst was that once you had a chance to digest the highly arcane ideas being thrust upon you, there were only about 2 – 3 actual questions about the passage. Really? It seemed to me that this was an intellectualized version of an obstacle course: first we’ll put you through the highly technical language of a scientific theory on iceberg migration, then we’ll jump over the literary merits of John Dryden, and just to see if you’re still paying attention, we’ll let you ask you to analyze a passage about the pop influences of Philip Glass (these examples were all taken from the ETS website and practice test, so I’m not giving much away.) Taken together, it becomes a primer in the Evelyn Woods techniques for speed reading merged with the 2 hour drive on the I-95 between New York and Philadelphia: a long ride through some very ugly territory, namely “New Jersey.”

With the first verbal reasoning section out of the way, I used every second of my two minute break (“breathe! breathe! breathe!” I chanted to myself, eyes clasped down) and proceeded on to the mathematics section, which goes by the more formidable term “quantitative reasoning.”  I’ve been teaching mathematics for the last 30 years, so it would seem that I would be very pumped up to tackle this section, as it would play into my perceived “strength.” However, my career in mathematics education is much different than what was expected on this exam: whereas I exhorted my students to study mathematics as a means to sharpen their logical reasoning abilities and develop good communication skills, these questions relied on quick analysis of decontextualized tasks. I found the questions formulaic and shallow, each one relying on a highly specific technique. On the occasions that I did find a question vaguely interesting, I did not have the luxury of actually doing a deeper analysis, as the timer nudged me along. In fact, if you love mathematics, you’re going to hate the quantitative reasoning section of the GREs, for there is nothing that is the antithesis of what mathematical thinking is all about than completing 25 questions in 30 minutes. NOTHING. It trivializes mathematical thinking, bringing it down to the level of reciting the first 100 digits of Pi while having no clue as to its magical properties. I had to skip one or two questions along the way, mentally calibrating the amount of time and effort a certain question would require when compared to the ultimate goal of reaching the highest score possible. In this regards, “gaming” a standardized test is more about tactics and strategy, rather than any mastery of skills and information.

At this point, I was officially “half done” with the GREs: I was given a 20 minute break, during which time I was allowed to take a bathroom break and get a glass of water. Had I known what was coming next, I probably would have snorted a few lines of cocaine.

Installment V: What did come next…

About rmberkman

This blog is the sole musings of one Robert M. Berkman, an educator who has taught math, science and technology for the past 30 years in New York. You can react to all his posts by emailing him at
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