Here is why I hate the Educational Testing Service!

This is a repost of a rant that I had written on my IITK homepage last year to express my frustrations with ETS. Since those frustrations still exist and my homepage will purge because of my graduation from the institute, I am shifting my rant to my blog.

Edit: In a private conversation, somebody pointed out this regarding the article:

” The starting point of your argument seems to be this assumption, “Ok, we are forced to apply to the US”. In which case, shouldn’t you be ranting against the powers that be in this country for the terrible state of affairs of the graduate programs here? ”

It is true to a large extent that there are many problems in the Indian education system which should precede this debate. Had there been good graduate programs in India, there would have been no reason to write this rant. I fully agree with this viewpoint. Owing to the internal problems of the country, an Indian applicant to the American system does lose the high ground of the debate to tell the west that their system is defunct. In fact, this is perhaps the entire reason why the organisation ETS is able to exploit international applicants.

Beyond what he said, I also acknowledge those who may feel that this issue does not address the large class of Indian students, and is meant for the very small percentage who are interested in applying to the west for higher studies.

That being said, these arguments are a kind of Whataboutism. I agree with these points, but the opinions expressed below are solely with regard to the Educational Testing Service in particular.

This page contains my complaints concerning the functioning of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the American ‘non-profit’ organization. Every math undergraduate student, applying to a decent US graduate program, for instance, University of Chicago or Virginia Tech University, is expected to send the scores of the following three exams: GRE, GRE subject test – Mathematics, and TOEFL. All three of these exams are conducted by the same organization, ETS.

Here are some of the things that, I think, should be brought to attention to any non-US student who is thinking of applying to Graduate programs in the United States, especially for Mathematics.

The costs are too high!

The costs of GRE, GRE subject test – Mathematics, and TOEFL are $205, $150 and $170, respectively (as of 2016, in India). In total, it’s $525 which is already a 35% of the $1,498.87 per capita GDP of India. Of course, there’s a large disparity of incomes in India, but that amount is already more than the monthly allowance of a PhD student of my college . It’s probably more money than what would cost to fake a degree in India . 

And not only would ETS ask to pay for the exams, ETS would also require money to send the score of the three exams, individually! All the exams have a different score reporting feature. Apart from four universities that one wishes to apply to, any additional university would require $27, $27 and $19, respectively for the three exams for an applicant’s score to be sent electronically to the institute that he/she is applying to. That’s more money that what would be required to physically send the score by post from India to US, ten times! 

Yes, they’ll argue that they have a fee reduction scheme for financially wanting students, but that’s only valid for American students. For Indian students, there’s no relief, as all this money is to be paid in Indian currency which would also cost currency exchange commissions to an applicant. 

These exorbitant prices might be forgivable if the expenditure of the money might be justified. However, as per their non-profit status, they’re exempted from paying taxes on most of their operations, and do not report all their expenditures to the government. This gives out a lot of room for there to not be a conspiracy. 

It could be that all of the costs go in to providing uniform testing facilities, which they unfortunately don’t score well in. It is true that arranging for all these tests overseas can be a costly business. But how much? Digging deeper, I found that the ETS contracts Accenture (obviously, a ‘for-profit’ company) for their warehousing, publishing, printing and distribution. The 2010 contract cost ETS a $160 Million for a seven-year long contract (which is around $23 million per year) that greatly reduced their production cost (and somehow increased it’s price in 2010 ). But putting this figure against the $1,110,361,270 of total functional expenses of 2013, there’s a lot of unexplained money. Their IRS Form 990 is public, but it doesn’t disclose everything and around half of their spending goes to a mysterious ‘other’ section. And to add to this, in 2008, this was observed(read the column on the right). 

But even if I brush aside conspiracy, there’s a clear evidence that ETS spends money in political lobbying and making their managers rich. Money spent for that certainly should not come at the expense of students who are forced to pay it, especially in places like India and Africa. Companies like Coca Cola, Microsoft and Samsung reduce their costs to compete in these markets, but the ETS does not have any competition, and on the contrary, it is a compulsion for prospective students.

The tests are not very meaningful.

First of all, as a graduate school applicant in math, it’s redundant testing for an applicant to write all the three exams. The GRE general section has a Quantitative Abilities section, which shouldn’t be required by a student who can score decently in the GRE subject test, and the other two sections are a Verbal and a Writing section, both of which are covered in the TOEFL examination (one might argue that the GRE general test has more focus on academic writing than TOEFL, but then clearly the requirement of both is redundant). 

Also, looking at how little the general GRE and TOEFL appear to do anything with my mathematics education (which thankfully never had a timed essay-writing test), it’s easily questionable how relevant the exams are for a career in math. Wikipedia says that an analysis of the GRE’s validity in predicting graduate school success found a correlation of .30 to .45 between the GRE and both first year and overall graduate GPA. The correlation between GRE score and graduate school completion rates ranged from .11 (for the now defunct analytical section) to .39 (for the GRE subject test). 

To put the above data in a better understanding, I would like to point out that the numbers {(202,300), (20.1,400), (20.2,251), (248,469)} have a correlation of 0.453. That’s quite erratic. I think this low correlation is probably because a PhD program takes skills completely different from whatever the exams are trying to test. In my opinion, the GRE can perhaps only prove if a student is not completely dumb, which I don’t think is a strong enough impetus to make someone to prepare for and to sit through such painfully long exams, and make them pay so much money for. If this exam could test some intrinsic ability that graduate schools require, ETS wouldn’t be selling these books to improve your score.

I have personal reasons to hate it.

Out of the three exams, there was one exam which actually tested some college-level mathematics (however, it hardly tests any problem solving abilities), which was the GRE Subject test. Expecting the same ease of ability of selecting a date for this exam as the other two exams, me and four other of my friends did not enroll ourselves for the GRE subject test in time. The deadline had passed and ETS would not allow us to register for the October 2016 slot, which was the last one available for the year’s season of graduate applications. 

It was then brought up that ETS, probably out of knowing similar candidates, has a back-up option for such people like us called the “stand-by testing mode”, in which ETS sends extra exam-material for on-site registration (which, of course, costs a $50 worth of extra money). However, for unexplained reasons, the stand-by testing feature was not available in India. The nearest test center where it was to be made available is in Kathmandu, Nepal. There was a lack of transparency from the ETS, and the only word we got from this organization was that there is extra-material sent to the Kathmandu center for stand-by applicants, but they couldn’t tell us how many extra applicants could they accommodate. 

We finally went there and it turned out there were only three extra copies for the five of us. We unanimously decided that none of us would appear for the exam. Had we been informed about the number of copies, we could have saved our trip (however, we did get to see a new country, which wasn’t so bad).


Now a lot of arguments in favor of these exams say that they provide a common metric of assessment for applicants of hugely varying backgrounds, which many US universities get a lot of! But my argument is not that educational testing is meaningless. The JEE is an exam that all Indians probably are familiar with, and I’m myself appearing for the upcoming TIFR-GS 2016. But these exams are different, as firstly they’re not extremely expensive. And secondly, although these exams are ruthless, getting rejected on the basis of these exams wouldn’t feel unfair as they’re actually testing your competence in a skill-set that, if not genuinely, at least give an appearance to be directly concerned to one’s graduate school. 

Although, the Nepal incident may not be something ETS is completely culpable for, I think that the exploitation of international students by the ETS must stop. There’s nothing about desiring a good career for oneself in academia that should be subject to such financial pain. Most parents would never argue against paying this money to the ETS and this is the mindset that they abuse. 

Now I’m not an expert on reforms, but there are several things that I would like to see happening. There needs to be cheaper alternatives of the above exams, which can help to stop ETS from exploiting their monopoly status. And if that’s not possible, on the very least, American universities could stop charging the exorbitant sums of money that they (many of them) charge from an applicant, right after he has to get financially molested by the ETS. 

As to what I think the students could do, it’s difficult to say. My suggestion would be to support this petition. As for my institute, IIT Kanpur can actually earn some money from ETS for becoming a Certified test center of ETS. I know, it is quite hypocritical of me to suggest it, but at least students of our campus will save a lot of money traveling to Delhi or other cities to appear for their exams. 

Thank you for reading this, if you did read it all. Here’s a potato.



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