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Indicator II-9 GRE Subject Test Scores
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Updated (3/12/2010) with data from 2007.

As in the case of college achievement generally, currently no examination specifically assesses undergraduate learning in specific disciplines. In the absence of such an assessment, the Humanities Indicators Project employs data from the GRE Subject Test program in an attempt to gauge undergraduate achievement in the humanities. These data, however, have several limitations.

One major shortcoming is that unlike the NAEP, which is administered to a carefully drawn national probability sample of elementary and secondary students, the GRE subject exams are not taken by a representative sample of the U.S. undergraduate population. GRE scores gauge the performance only of those undergraduates who apply to graduate programs that require the exam. Another difficulty with the GRE data presented here is that some examinees have been out of college for several years. A formal assessment of undergraduate learning (as opposed to readiness for graduate study, which is what the GRE is designed to measure) would ideally be administered immediately before or after graduation. Moreover, the subject exams are taken only by students who wish to pursue graduate studies in those disciplines—and some of these students may not have majored in those fields during college. Finally, and most limiting for the purposes of the Humanities Indicators Project, is the fact that Educational Testing Service, the organization that develops and administers the GRE subject exams, offers the exam in only one humanities discipline, English literature.

Figure II-9 presents mean score data for this exam (it is scored on a scale ranging from 200 to 990). Each data point is a moving average, representing the average score of all examinees who took the exam in the previous three years. The 16 years between 1991–1992 and 2007–2008 have seen a net increase in mean scores. More specifically, the data indicate that while examinees’ scores dropped in the early to mid-1990s, they have risen by small increments almost every year since then. By 2000–2001, mean scores were at their pretrough levels, and in the most recent year for which data are available, 2007–2008, scores were 16 points higher than they were in 1991–1992.

Figure II-9, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

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