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Indicator II-8 Humanities Students’ Scores on the Graduate Record Exam
NOTE TO READERS: Please include the following reference when citing data from this page: "American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities Indicators,"
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The Educational Testing Service (ETS), which develops and administers the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), has declined to provide the Humanities Indicators the data necessary to update this indicator. ETS considers the measurement of learning outcomes an inappropriate use of GRE scores (see “GRE: Guide to the Use of Scores” for ETS’s policy regarding the uses for which it will make score information available).

Although national data assessing collegiate achievement do not currently exist, recent movement in this direction suggests such data might be available in coming years. The September 2006 report of the U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education (more commonly known as the Spellings Commission after former U.S. secretary of education Margaret Spellings) contained a recommendation that the federal government encourage colleges and universities to measure student learning using tools such as the Educational Testing Service's Proficiency Profile (formerly known as the Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress) and the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). Some U.S. colleges and universities already require students to take such assessments as a condition of graduation. In 2004–2005, for example, the University of Texas system contracted with the Council for Aid to Education (CAE) to administer the CLA to at least a sample of students at every academic unit within the system.1 The CAE has also partnered with the Council for Independent Colleges (CIC) to sponsor the Collegiate Learning Assessment Consortium, a group of 47 CIC-member institutions that are using the CLA instrument as a means of evaluating students’ cognitive growth. (In early 2010, the United States announced its willingness to participate in an OECD-led effort to develop a global higher education outcomes assessment.)

Although a growing number of postsecondary institutions are administering standardized exams to measure student learning, the majority of U.S. colleges and universities still do not utilize such assessments. In the absence of such data, the Humanities Indicators Project utilizes Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores to shed some light on humanities majors’ proficiency in key areas. (For another perspective on college-level learning by humanities majors, see Indicator III-5, Undergraduate Humanities Majors and the Professions, which examines humanities undergraduates’ performance on law, business, and medical school admissions exams.) The GRE, a test that most U.S. graduate schools require for admission to their programs, is taken by a nonrepresentative subset of students (those hoping to pursue advanced academic degrees in their fields). The GRE is taken mostly, but not exclusively, by students educated in the United States. For these reasons, GRE scores constitute an imperfect measure of the proficiency of humanities students emerging from U.S. colleges and universities. Nonetheless, the data permit rough comparisons of the level of verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing skills demonstrated by students of the humanities with those of science and engineering students, as well as among students in different humanities disciplines.

Humanities majors demonstrated, on average, the highest level of verbal skills among those taking the GRE between 2004 and 2007, outperforming the next highest scoring group, social science majors, by 63 points and exceeding the national average by 83 points (Figure II-8a). On the quantitative portion of the exam, examinees who had studied engineering or natural science scored considerably higher, on average, than humanities majors. Humanities majors’ average quantitative score was approximately 33 points lower than that for all examinees.

Figure II-8a, Full Size
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Humanities majors were notable for the balance between their verbal and quantitative scores. On average, humanities students scored in the mid-500s on both the verbal and quantitative exams (800 is the highest score). In the sciences and engineering, quantitative scores tended to outstrip verbal scores by a substantial margin.

Figure II-8b shows examinees’ performance on the analytical writing portion of the GRE and again categorizes test takers according to their undergraduate major. Humanities majors were more likely than those in engineering and the sciences to score in the upper brackets, 4.5–6.0 (The analytical writing exam is scored on a 0–6 scale. See the description of skills demonstrated by students scoring at each of the analytical writing levels). Only among humanities and social science majors did at least 50% of students demonstrate such developed writing skills. Humanities majors were also the most likely to receive the highest possible scores, with 23% of examinees who had studied humanities scoring in the 5.5–6.0 range. From 4% to 14% of engineering and science majors scored at this level.

Figure II-8b, Full Size
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When the humanities disciplines are compared, classics and philosophy students emerge as consistently high performers. Classics majors had the highest average verbal score (614), followed by examinees who had majored in philosophy (580; Figure II-8c). Students of classics and philosophy, along with linguistics majors, were also the top performers on the quantitative exam, with average scores ranging from 611 to 615.

When it came to demonstrated writing ability, at least 50% of majors in every humanities discipline received a score of at least 4.5 (Figure II-8d). Classics and philosophy students were again the most likely to demonstrate such proficiency, with approximately 75% of examinees scoring at or above this threshold. But even in the disciplines with the smallest share of such “strong” writers (archeology, languages and literatures other than English, linguistics, and music) approximately 60% of majors scored at this level—a larger proportion than in any nonhumanities discipline. Observed differences among the humanities disciplines in the share of strong writers were attributable almost entirely to disparities in the proportion of examinees earning the highest possible scores.

Figure II-8c, Full Size
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Figure II-8d, Full Size
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1 For a discussion of the University of Texas assessment initiative and test results, see Pedro Reyes, Student Learning Assessment in Higher Education (Austin: University of Texas System, 2006),

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