Grad school applicants be warned: Students taking the GRE General Test should be aware of some changes. In November, the Educational Testing Service, which administers the exam, introduced new question types to the verbal and quantitative sections. These alterations, while relatively minor, were the first phase in a larger effort to make the exam more relevant.
In the verbal section, a new "text completion" question asks students to fill in a series of blanks within a short paragraph. Each blank has its own list of multiple-choice options; each option changes the overall meaning of the paragraph and, by extension, the answers for the blanks that follow.
The new "numeric entry" question asks students to type their answer into a box instead of choosing one from multiple-choice options. (The test is taken on a computer.)
"You won't be asked to pick from a multiple-choice list very often in life, but you might be asked to come up with a number," explains David Payne, executive director of the GRE program at ETS. "We're trying to adopt items that have a closer analog to what students will be doing in graduate school."
Rollout rollback. It was over a year ago that ETS first rolled out plans for an extensive GRE makeover. Among the biggest changes would have been the elimination of the antonym and analogy questions in the verbal section, and a switch to a more secure, Internet-based exam offered only occasionally throughout the year. (Currently, students may schedule exams at almost any time.)
Test makers scrapped the idea last spring when it became clear that testing centers lacked the resources to accommodate the large groups of test takers it would create. More than 550,000 applicants per year take the test.
Since then, ETS has taken a more gradual approach to improving the exam. The antonym and analogy questions may be eliminated eventually, but test makers say it could be years before they introduce alternatives. The process of changing the exam has been so sluggish that some education experts are concerned that the standardized testing industry, which oversees dozens of national and statewide exams, has too many balls in the air. Larger concerns, like bias, susceptibility to coaching, and predictive inaccuracy, have yet to be fully addressed, they feel.
Others think the admitted need for gradualism a sign of prudence, especially given the challenges ETS faced with implementing the new sat for prospective college students. In 2002, ETS made several changes to the sat after the University of California-Berkeley, one of its biggest customers, threatened to drop the test entirely. Reading comprehension questions took the place of analogies, and quantitative comparisons were replaced with algebra II questions.
Still, critics felt it was misleading to call it a "new" sat when the changes seemed relatively minor. Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the group FairTest, a Massachusetts-based organization that monitors standardized tests for signs of bias, compared the changes to "painting lipstick and eye shadow on a pig." But good change often evolves slowly, he admits. "Clearly, this incremental approach is better than having a disaster," says Schaeffer. "It creates an opportunity to get the bugs out."
Schaeffer's chief concern is that, in his view, the test is more about making money for the testing companies than about helping kids choose schools or helping colleges choose kids. "One can only surmise that such changes are done for the same reason that Ford needs to repackage its cars every year: to burnish the image and hold market share, to make it look modernized," he says.
Indeed, though question types have been slow to change, exam costs have not. Prices to take the GRE are currently $140 for students in the United States and $170 abroad.