Wednesday, July 20, 2011

comme si j'étais en Suisse

My envelope from ETS came today-- the one containing my GRE scores from this past July's stab at the test. As you'll recall, I got a 710 on both the Verbal and the Quantitative; this put me in the 98th and (cough) 72nd percentiles, respectively.

Scores for Verbal and Quant are automatically generated on the spot; you can know your scores before you walk away from your study carrel at the end of the exam. But because the Analytical Writing section is graded by actual human beings (I think this may change: ETS has been quietly shifting more and more essay-rating work to its flagship grading program, e-rater), those scores weren't immediately available. I've spent the past couple weeks on tenterhooks, waiting for the arrival of my results.

The Analytical Writing section consists of two essays. In July-- one month before the Great GRE Changeover-- the essays were called (1) Present Your Perspective on an Issue, and (2) Analyze an Argument. In the first instance, the objective was to write a systematically thought-out opinion about a given issue. The second task, however, involved reading a faulty argument and determining just what its flaws were. The writer was challenged to isolate bad assumptions, note leaps in logic, and offer ways in which to improve the argument.

The scoring scale-- which is the same as the scale used for the SAT I Essay Writing section-- goes from 1 to 6 points. I've been flashing back to my time living in Switzerland, where universities give grades on a 1 to 6 scale. Back in 1989 at the Université de Fribourg, getting a 5 in a class was cause for reverence from one's classmates; Swiss profs were (and probably still are) notoriously stingy with their high grades.*

With that standard in mind, I opened my ETS envelope with some trepidation. The result:


I cheered. Compared to the sorry job I did on the old Analytical Reasoning section from the 1990s, a 5.5 out of 6 is almost miraculous. Not only that, but a 5.5 puts me in the 94th percentile, i.e., I scored better than 94 percent of the people who have taken this form of the GRE. Rock and roll, baby.

My elation faded, though, as I pondered just what it was that I thought I'd accomplished. In the end, I merely proved that I'm a pretty thorough, systematic, analytical writer and thinker-- no surprise, given my background and my intellectual predilections. What I didn't do, though, is redeem myself quite the way I had hoped. I wouldn't disagree with the person who accused ETS of "dumbing down" the Analytical section: there's some merit to that accusation. The old Analytical Reasoning section, as you may remember, was composed almost entirely of logic problems that usually required one to move very quickly through a rigid series of deductive steps in order to arrive at the proper solution.** Logical people generally had little trouble with such problems: they could see the route connecting the question to the answer very clearly, and almost instantaneously. People like me, however, aren't wired to navigate the apodictic realm quite so deftly; those problems were a real struggle for me, and it showed: if I recall correctly, my Analytical Reasoning score from the late 1990s was an abysmal 500-something, putting me in the 40-somethingth percentile.

My point is that a leap from the 40-something netherworld to the 94th percentile is most decidedly not a reflection of my years of rigorous training in Talmud: it's a reflection of a new testing format that's friendlier to people of my verbal-oriented persuasion. I think ETS recognizes this, too: the section was originally called "Analytical Reasoning," but was eventually renamed "Analytical Writing" to reflect a fundamental change in testing emphasis. It's enough to make one wonder whether both sections-- Reasoning and Writing-- shouldn't be on the test, as a gesture of fairness to the more apodictic-minded.

Still, this is cause to celebrate. I have an Analytical Writing score that's nothing to be ashamed of (although a 6 would have been nicer), and a set of Verbal and Quant scores that would make me the darling of many a Humanities department.*** The old Analytical Reasoning section is gone-- and good riddance! Fair or not, the new Analytical Writing section is here to stay, and even though it's been slightly revised as part of the Great GRE Changeover, the new version won't be much different from the previous version.

My Analytical Writing score is not, from what I can tell, relevant in any way to my job prospects: the powers that be inside MGRE are focused exclusively on one's Verbal and Quantitative scores. Today, it's more about enjoying a strange little moral victory than about anything pertinent to my work-related future.

*I managed at least a 5 in all my classes while in Fribourg; a rare 6 was awarded to me for my performance in Cultures et civilisation françaises, and I got a 5.5 in my favorite classes, Science des religions and La quête de l'absolu: culture et religion des Hindous. I even managed a 5 in L'Oeuvre poétique de Louise Labé-- not one of my favorite classes, although I liked the stodgy prof who taught it.

**If you're desperate to see what the old Analytical problems were like, check out this link. Unfortunately, the answers are listed right along with the problems, which takes the fun out of trying to solve them yourself.

***A science-related department, by contrast, would take one look at my Quant score and do its damnedest to hunt me to extinction.



Charles said...

Congrats. For whatever it may or may not mean, it is, as you said, cause to celebrate.

Kevin Kim said...

Many thanks. If we leave out the whole "compared to my previous performance on a very different type of test" thing, the 5.5 has merit in itself.