Publication Date

May 1, 1999

Perspectives Section


Because of drastically falling registrations, Educational Testing Service, which administers the GRE tests, has decided that the April 2000 test will be the last history subject test it will conduct.

According to Kathy O' Neill, director for the GRE subject tests, many of the GRE subject test volumes have been declining in the last few years, but the decreases for history and sociology have been larger than for the other tests.

The decline in registration for the history test last fall was so large that it triggered the decision to discontinue because there were too few examinees to be able to perform the necessary statistical analyses. More than 1,800 students took the test in the l995–96 academic year, but last year's volume was only 560 (for all test dates combined). O' Neill stated that when fall 1998 registrations showed that the volume for this year would be even lower, it was clear to the ETS decisionmakers that the statistical equating calculations that were necessary to sustain the history test could no longer be performed accurately.

O' Neill added that the decision to cancel the test was also based, in part, on a survey of all 300 graduate history departments conducted last fall by ETS. The results of this survey indicated that most departments had no plans to require or recommend the history test for applicants. The departments responded that they do not consider the history test to be necessary because they believe that it does not predict success and that it serves as a barrier for students. In their admissions decisions they consider the most valuable information to be GPA in history coursework, letters of recommendation, and the GRE general test scores. This feedback led the GRE program to believe that the decline in volume for the history test would not be reversed in the foreseeable future.

"Applicants probably won't mourn the demise of this test," said John Summers, graduate history student at the University of Rochester (and contributing editor to Perspectives), who thinks that even the general GRE test does little to predict success in graduate school. “Taking the GRE remains one of those rituals which bears only the vaguest relationship to life in a PhD program, where imagination and determination are often much more important than the capacity to perform well for a few hours on a Saturday morning,” Summers declared, adding, “I think we should welcome the decision to end the subject test. Perhaps it will provoke a broader reconsideration of the criteria the profession uses to admit graduate students.”

A similar sentiment was expressed by Robert Stacey, chair of the history department at the University of Washington, where the history test had not been a requirement for as long as anyone could remember. They are more interested in assessing the depth of applicants’ knowledge in the specific areas in which they proposed to specialize, while the test evaluated breadth of knowledge and rewarded candidates who had a smattering of knowledge about many areas of the world in all time periods. Besides, Stacey pointed out, assessing how well candidates can analyze historical problems, research historical questions, and write history essays could not properly be accomplished by a multiple choice test.

Barbara Hanawalt of Ohio State University, who is a member of the GRE test development committee, also felt that "the test was not really a skills test—it was a knowledge test that was all over the map and all time periods," and that it was hard to prepare for. But, she said, there was scope for improving the test.

Jack Censer, chair of the history department at George Mason University (which currently requires only the regular GRE, not the history test), felt, on the other hand, that "the advanced test is a valuable exam which was slated to improve a lot with the addition of more analytical questions." Indeed, Censer (who is also on the GRE test development committee), thinks that an improved subject test could have usefully replaced the basic test.

Michael Zuckerman of the University of Pennsylvania's history department (which required the subject test through this year) was very impressed by the sophistication that went into the framing of the tests. He was skeptical, he said, about all such tests, and more so about the history test because "it is difficult to do a meaningful test on a decentered subject such as history," but as a member of the test development committee, he was "bowled over by the conscientiousness, the thoughtfulness, and the unmistakable goodwill that were evident" in the way GRE managed the test. The irony, Zuckerman remarked, was that "it is the very scrupulousness and statistical sophistication of ETS that doomed the test." But he did not think the loss to the world of the GRE history test was a very great one.

The GRE program is currently investigating whether the cancelled tests (history and sociology) could be used in some other form (such as program evaluation assessments).

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