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,
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
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
Educational Testing Service's Proficiency Profile (formerly known as the Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress)
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.
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.
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
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.
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),