It all began with a nagging doubt, looming now as the truth.

During all of those years in which I assumed I was making an adequate progression through adulthood -- winning job promotions, keeping a marriage intact, rearing two boys -- I was backsliding.

I read the newspaper every day and a moderate stack of books and magazines every month, and I even, sometimes, watch a TV documentary. But all, it seems, for naught.

The truth is, I am not getting any smarter.

I made this discovery because I decided to become a reentry woman -- you know the term--and return to school. Not only that, my plan included making a mid-life career change and earning a graduate degree in a new field.

Choosing a new field only required nudging a latent ambition out into the full glare of recognition. I have for years wanted to work in psychology.

Exactly where I was going to become a psychologist was not so certain, but once I called all of the colleges in the Yellow Pages, received their catalogs and noted tuition fees, that decision was easy. While many private universities charge about $500 per three-credit course, state universities such as George Mason University in Fairfax ask one fourth that price.

I decided to take two undergraduate prerequisites and apply for spring admission to graduate school. I even managed to negotiate the bureaucratic maze for permission to enter a closed class (scheduled during my children's school hours).

On the first day of classes, I dressed in uniform denim, left home early, found a parking place on the far perimeter of the lot and melded into the sea of young adults surging towards the main campus.

As we crested into the central court, my uneasiness built towards panic: This is absurd, these are all kids, I did this before . . . what am I doing here now?

Two creased and definitely-over-35 faces at the door of my first class did much to relieve my unease. We moved together into the classroom.

Business-size calculators sat in pairs on each table. I found them unnerving. I knew, of course, that this was statistics, which would entail some math. But I didn't like to be reminded that the only math I had done in 15 years was add the columns of my checkbook -- with a calculator.

Apparently, I was not the first to experience math anxiety: Our instructor announced that she was going to begin her course with 10 minutes of therapy.

If we could add, subtract, multiply and divide, she said, if we kept up, if we rewrote our notes after class, and if we read them aloud, we should do all right.

If we also suffered from test anxiety, she recommended that we study in the same seat we would use when taking tests (to associate answers, I suppose, with environment).

And here we come to the part about my not getting any smarter. I spent two hours reworking one statistics problem before I realized that I had blindly and persistently divided a 1.692 figure as .692.

This alone I could chalk up to reentry nerves, but what has really undone me is a thick soft-cover book entitled GRE (for Graduate Record Examination).

I purchased this book because ambition, job success and even mastering of statistics will not beat the 1-out-of-20 odds of admission to my chosen program.

First, I have to score well on the 3-hour GRE exam which tests verbal, mathematical and analytical aptitude.

The GRE book not only includes a review of these skills, but also has six model tests. I announced to my children that I would be unavailable for snacks, scraped knees and other emergencies for three hours, moved a clock onto my desk, sharpened two pencils and began.

Since I have spent all of my post-college years writing, I assumed my verbal skills would be right up there in the excellent or, at the very least, good range. My score was a humbling "needs further study."

As I began the math section, my poised pencil never hit paper. I could not do, nor even guess at, the answers to the first three problems.

Spirits flagging by the minute, I turned to the analytical section. Here I was to read a paragraph describing a particular situation and a one-sentence result. Then, I was to read a list of statements and judge whether they were (a) inconsistent with the facts, (b) a possible explanation of the result, (c) have to be true, (d) support or weaken a possible explanation of the result, or (e) irrelevant.

I still can't distinguish (b) from (d), and I get confused about whether Neil Carson's good record with the bus company is relevant or merely deducible.

One of the worst questions in this section proposes a vegetable garden with seven rows, each with only one variety of four vegetables. There are to be as many rows of tomatoes as possible, but none adjacent. Corn is to be planted as far from the squash as is possible. Then, the rows of tomatoes are to be counted.

What these rows of tomatoes have to do with psychology I don't know.

What I do know is that I am hiring a math tutor, and while I will take the GRE exam this month, I expect to be taking it again in the spring.

And even then, will I have to trade in my reentry-woman status for college dropout?