This year is the twenty-sixth anniversary of the hardest test I ever took. Then, about to graduate from college with an English degree, I had been in school for so long and had liked it so much that I had no particular yearning to go out into the world. Perhaps graduate school was a way to put that off forever, or at least for three or four years, which in those days was the same as forever. So I sat down in a classroom in Houston to take the Graduate Record Examination in literature. Many questions were like this one, taken from a recent study guide for the same test:
Who wrote “On the isles’s lone beach they paid him in silver for their passage out, the stranger having declined to carry them at all except upon that condition; though willing to take every means to insure the due fulfillment of his promise.”
(A) Joseph Conrad (B) Herman Melville (C) Richard Dana (D) Samuel Johnson (E) Robert Louis Stevenson
Well, it isn’t Samuel Johnson, but after that I don’t know now and wouldn’t have known then. On and on the questions came, each succeeding one designed to expose more of my vast ignorance. What are the characteristics of a triolet? What is synecdoche? Which of the following passages are from Wycherley’s The Country Wife? For years I had been reading and reading, but now all I saw was how much I hadn’t read. Worse still, the things I had read I seemed to have forgotten completely. And there was so much I had not even heard of—didn’t even know I should know!
I left the test despondent, but in retrospect I believe I owe it a great deal. To be a college professor in English meant—if you were going to be any good—gaining through hard work a ready familiarity with the whole history of literature as well as the technical vocabulary and critical theories that underlie scholarship and teaching. And that was exactly what the GRE tested. The very difficulty of the test made it a wake-up call for the effort it would take to master the substance of that profession. If the test had been easier, it also would have been less fair to me. It would have made me think I knew and understood a subject when I didn’t. It would not have tested me; it would have only deluded me.
The Texas Education Agency has recently made its standardized tests less deluding. Last October fewer than half the students who took the “exit level” test, given in the eleventh and twelfth grades, were able to pass all three of the test’s sections, which students must do to receive a high school diploma. The agency claims that the test emphasizes “those areas which improve a student’s ability to think independently, read critically, write clearly, and solve problems logically.” Fair enough, but how difficult are the passages to read critically, and how complicated are the problems to solve logically, when compared with other standard tests?
Despite the low passing rate, my experience with the test