(For those who have better things to do than ponder GRE scores, this post will make more sense if you know that around four percent of all GRE testers achieve the highest score of 800 on the quant (math) section, while just 2-3% of all testers get over 700 on the verbal section.)
Razib Khan, building on his previous work, correlates GRE verbal and math scores by intended major into a stunningly cool graphic. Many commenters, both at Khan’s and Steve Sailer’s site observed the sizable gap between quant and verbal averages, repeated the amateur’s conventional wisdom that foreign testers, particularly Asians, are the cause.
This may be a small point, but could everyone please take note so they don’t irritate me with gormless speculation: verbal scores on standardized tests have been lower than math scores for forty years or more. High verbal scores are extremely rare; high math scores are, in comparison, common.
First up, Sex, Race, Ethnicity, and Performance on the GRE General Test provides GRE scores broken down by nationality for the year 2001-2002 (first year of the last change):
About 3% of US born testers get anywhere close to 700 on the verbal section. And just to forestall the next objection, no, it’s not URM scores that are dragging the average down, either:
In this year, at least, white women are 50% of the tested population; white men another 27%. This makes sense; most of the high volume, low academic barrier grad school specialities are white women jobs (teachers, social workers, nurses). That also explains the rather sizable gap between the genders; men who take the GRE are at least as likely to be testing into a hard sciences speciality as they are into teaching. But again, it’s clear that about 10-12% of whites or US testers are getting over 600 on the verbal.
This isn’t a recent development, as the score history from 1965 on shows:
(Source: NCES, and you can see all the scores through 2007 there).
From 1965-69, verbal and math scores had roughly the same average, although math had the greater standard deviation, which should mean that there were more 800s in math than in verbal. In the lax 70s, both verbal and math scores declined, although verbal scores dropped far more. In the “A Nation at Risk” 80s, math scores rebounded and exceeded the good old days (some of that growth, no doubt, attributable to the increased Asian presence). Verbal scores never did.
The GRE was originally a knockoff of the SAT, and the same decline in verbal scores can be seen through these years. Math scores didn’t take much of a dive during this time, interestingly enough.
None of this decline is news; Murray and Herrnstein’s Bell Curve first made the data available, I think. But it shows that long before Asians became overrepresented in college tests, verbal GRE scores have been low, and high verbal scores have always been rarer than math. You can see the same gap between verbal and math in the GMAT, and MCAT science scores are far higher than the verbal section. The LSAT doesn’t test math and I couldn’t find a breakdown of section scores. I coached the LSAT, though, and distinctly remember reading in the company manual (which I’ve since tossed) that, while most testers think the logic games was the most difficult, the reading section had the lowest average score. Can’t find any data confirming or denying that memory, unfortunately.
Many people are dismissive of verbal tests. One common charge is that verbal questions are open to interpretation but—how can I say this delicately—that’s because the distinctions that resolve the ambiguities are often only obvious to people with exceptionally strong verbal skills.
The other frequent complaint about verbal tests involves the sneer that “they’re just vocabulary tests and anyone can memorize if they wanted to”.
Well, if any group were going to prove that assertion true, it would be Asians. Asian American teens spend 100 hours or more in SAT test prep (and that’s just class time) and now have higher scores than whites in math and writing. But somehow, despite the fact that the 2005 SAT became significantly friendlier to memorization, whites still top Asians in reading. Back in China and Korea, where testers spend, literally, months in full time test prep, memorization should certainly do some good. But the rampant cheating in both China and Korea (and Taiwan and a host of other Asian countries) suggests that memorization wasn’t getting the job done, which is why GRE banned testing in these countries. I’m not suggesting that all Asians cheat, nor do I think that high Asian American scores are due to cheating (one of my many second jobs is at an SAT academy). But anyone who thinks that memorization is a key factor in high verbal scores isn’t acknowledging that we’ve got a demographic willing to put in the time, and it’s not made a big difference.
Ironically, given this confidence about faking out the GRE, a difficult verbal test is nearly impervious to coaching and the old GRE was the worst. I quit taking GRE students because it was too depressing. The LSAT reading test, as I mentioned, is challenging to eke out improvement for most people–the text is abstract and the questions as tough as I’ve ever seen–tougher than the GRE, where the difficulty is in the vocabulary sections. In contrast, the GMAT and MCAT verbals are entirely coachable. That does not mean the tests are easy, but coaches can teach people how the test works, increase their content knowledge, teach them how to read more strategically, and see improvement.
Unlike the SAT, the GRE was never renormed for the huge influx of average and below average intellects. It remained, as the SAT once was, the closest thing the college tests had to a pure IQ test. The math test didn’t allow a calculator and, while the subject matter never got beyond geometry, it remained more abstract than the SAT was after the changes in the 90s and 2005–and consequently, much more difficult than it’s given credit for. But it, too, could be coached. (By “coached”, I only mean that people could improve their performance to the top of their range. For some people, that range is much greater than they know; for others, it’s a small step. That’s why average coaching improvements look so small.)
Recently, a research project put out an APB for people with high IQs (over 145). The only three tests that gave automatic admission, based on score, were the SAT, the ACT, and the old GRE. I suspect the new one wouldn’t qualify.
Why do we appear to have fewer high verbal achievers than math achievers? I think Murray and Herrnstein were correct when they wrote that “a politically compromised curriculum is less likely to sharpen the verbal skills of students than one that hews to standards of intellectual rigor and quality” annd that “when parents demanded higher standards, their schools introduced higher standards in the math curriculum that really were higher, and higher standards in the humanities and social sciences that really were not”. (Bell Curve, page 432-433) Without question, we have lost a couple generations of cognitively able students who weren’t given the opportunity to really achieve to their fullest capability, and we stand to lose a few more.
But I also wonder if verbal intelligence is less understood and consequently less valued. If one is “good at math”, there’s a logical progression of courses to take, problems to solve (or spend a lifetime trying to), and increasingly difficult subjects to tackle–and plenty of careers that want them. But if one has a high verbal intelligence without good spatial aptitude (which seems to be necessary for higher math) it is often described as “good at reading”, a woefully inaccurate characterization of high verbal intelligence—and then what? Apart from law, there aren’t nearly as many clearly defined career paths with a wide range of opportunities for all temperaments and interests. Most of the ones I can think of involve luck and driving ambition just to get started (journalism, tenured academia, political consultant).
For a good twenty years or so, people with high verbal skills who were indifferent at high-level math went into technology. It’s hard to remember now in the age of Google and after the heyday of corporate computing, but IBM and mainframe shops were filled with bright people who had degrees in history and English and humanities who just “didn’t like math” but were excellent programmers. I routinely worked in shops where all the expert techies making six figures came from non-STEM majors. But that time appears to be over.
Of course, doing anything about this lack of clearly defined career paths for smart folks with less spatial aptitude would involve acknowledging it’s a problem, and I might be the only one who thinks it’s a problem.