The New GRE, Redux

Key test for graduate admissions will lose antonyms and analogies, replace some geometry with data analysis, alter scoring, and let test takers move among questions. ETS calls shifts significant; critics see cosmetic changes.
December 7, 2009

The Educational Testing Service plans to start offering the new version of the Graduate Record Examination -- taken annually by 600,000 applicants to graduate programs -- in August or September of 2011, with changes in both the content and format of parts of the test. Many of the changes were supposed to have taken place in 2007, when ETS was forced to abandon a planned overhaul of the GRE months before it was to have taken place, citing computer testing difficulties.

This round of changes comes at a time of increased competition worldwide in the testing industry -- with ETS trying to gain wider use for the GRE in the business school market -- at the same time that the Graduate Management Admission Council (sponsor of the dominant test for M.B.A. admissions, the GMAT) is, together with Pearson, challenging ETS on tests of English for foreign students.

Some of the key differences ETS plans for the new GRE are the following:

  • Test takers using the computer version of the test (who represent the vast majority of test takers in the United States and Western nations) will be able to move around among questions within sections, skipping a question and coming back later or revising an answer before finishing a section. In the current version, a test taker must give a final answer to a question before getting the next question. This is a shift that was not planned in the aborted 2007 launch and is likely to be popular with test takers.
  • The scoring system for the verbal and quantitative sections of the test will be revised to be on scales of 130-170, with score increments of one point. This replaces scales of 200-800, with score increments of 10 points. (The writing test's 1-6 scale will not change.)
  • The section of antonyms and analogies in the verbal section will be removed, with more reading comprehension added.
  • The geometry section in the quantitative section will shrink, with additional questions being added related to data analysis.
  • A calculator will be provided so that mathematics answers will be based on test-takers' comprehension of concepts and not their speed at basic calculations.
  • The time of the exam will increase from around 3 hours to 3 hours, 45 minutes.

The cost of the exam -- currently $150 in the United States; $205 in China, Korea and Taiwan; and $180 elsewhere -- is not expected to go up explicitly because of the revisions. But ETS is planning a review of pricing next year that could result in an increase before the new version is offered. The paper-and-pencil version of the test will continue to be offered in countries without adequate facilities for computer testing, but ETS expects to continue to move away from the older mode of testing.

David Payne, an ETS vice president and chief operating officer for its college and graduate programs, said the changes would benefit both test takers and the graduate programs that use the results to evaluate applicants. He said that the ability to move around among questions would reduce stress for test takers by "letting them do what they would normally do" in taking a test, figuring out for themselves the order in which they want to answer a question.

The change in score reports, he said, was based on the view that graduate programs were viewing the 10 point increments in scores as representing much larger differences among applicants than ETS believes exist. Payne said he hoped the new system would encourage people to realize that someone with a score a few points higher than another candidate didn't necessarily have significantly different ability.

The changes in the test questions themselves, he said, are part of a goal of having the test better resemble the kind of work people do in graduate school. He also said that the changes -- in particular replacing the geometry questions with data analysis -- reflect a desire to make the GRE more attractive to business schools for use in admissions decisions.

Another major change -- not directly tied to the test itself -- is that ETS has added as an option to the GRE the Personal Potential Index, in which professors analyze the applicants on a range of non-cognitive factors that may encourage graduate programs to admit them.

Taken together, Payne said, the test will be "much friendlier" to test takers and will represent "the very best" option for graduate programs. While technology problems forced ETS to call off the launch of the revised GRE in 2007, Payne said that "we are 100 percent confident we'll launch the new test" on schedule in 2011.

Testing Mess in India

ETS timed its announcement to coincide with the annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools, but the timing may be less than ideal. The ETS subsidiary that delivers the GRE -- Prometric -- is currently facing a major embarrassment in India.

Prometric won the contract to bring online the admissions test used by top business schools in India, and the first round of testing -- which started last month -- has been full of snafus. At least 47 of the testing centers set up to deliver the test had major problems that prevented students from taking the test, and 8,000 of the 45,000 students scheduled to take the exam in its first three days faced serious technology problems or were unable, as a result, to take the test at all. The number of angry would-be test takers is now much higher, as 240,000 people had signed up for the test.

The Indian news media has been full of articles quoting politicians and students blasting the way the new test was unveiled. An article Saturday in The Times of India described how some students who were unable to take the test are finding themselves unable to get information on new testing dates, others are being reassigned testing dates at cities far from where they live, and still others -- who did take the test successfully -- are receiving notification that they have new testing dates. Because many Indian students must travel great distances to the closest testing center, the logistical issues are considerable.

ETS officials referred all questions about the testing situation in India to Prometric, whose spokeswoman said she could release only a brief statement, which said that the business school test is "proceeding normally at this time" and that other Prometric testing in India was not affected by the business school testing. Prometric, the statement said, will not discuss anything about the administration of the test until scores have been processed.

The problems in India may be significant because much of the testing competition for ETS and others these days is outside the United States. ETS boasts, for example, of a 116 percent increase since 2006 in the number of European institutions (most of them business schools) that accept the GRE, and this year has seen a 68 percent increase in the percentage of exam scores sent to French institutions and a 62 percent increase to Spanish institutions.

The GMAT continues, however, to have the lion's share of the business school market. And while GMAC declined to comment on the new GRE, the council did release a statement in response to the Indian press reports, noting that while ETS once managed the GMAT, the council in 2006 dropped ETS and switched management of the GMAT to Pearson and ACT.

Neill Seltzer has monitored the GRE-GMAT competition closely, as he is national GRE content director for the Princeton Review and the lead author of some of that company's GRE guidebooks. Seltzer said that he does see the GRE "gaining market share" in that many more business schools are starting to recognize the test for admissions purposes. But he said that there may be non-educational reasons both for business schools recognizing the test and would-be M.B.A.'s taking it. Many business schools buy exam registrations to recruit students, Seltzer noted, so for business schools "why not say yes and gain access to a whole new list," he said.

As for test takers, Seltzer said that students find the GMAT to be "slightly more rigorous on mathematics" than is the GRE, so students whose verbal skills are stronger than their mathematics skills are exploring the option.

What the GRE Change Mean

Seltzer said that by far the most significant change ETS plans is to let test takers move around from question to question. He said that this shift should make the experience much better for test takers because in the current system "if you get hung up on something, you can get stuck." Many people taking tests may freeze at a question and if they go on to other material may realize that they do know the answer, so he said that this change should help many students get better scores.

As for the other changes, he said that they seemed "mostly cosmetic." Told of ETS's explanation of how the new scoring system would encourage more thoughtful use of scores, Seltzer laughed.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a long-time critic of ETS, agreed, saying that the modifications were generally "small to modest changes designed to refurbish and reposition a stale product. It's all about marketing." He said that the lengthening of the exam time could make fatigue "a more significant issue."

The larger question, he said, is whether graduate programs need the GRE at all. Given that graduate programs admit from "a much smaller universe" (of colleges) than do undergraduate programs (with many more high schools), he said that "the argument that you need testing" to compare candidates "is weaker."

Only one group is sure to gain by the switch, Schaeffer said. "Whenever you change a test, you give a tremendous boost to the coaching industry."

Historically, test changes tend to encourage more people to seek out test prep services. Some rush to take the old test (on the chance they earn higher scores there) and so use coaching to speed up preparation; and those who are among the first to take a new test are more likely than others to want test prep because they can't rely on informal advice about the exams.

Seltzer, of the Princeton Review, agreed that test changes can be good for test prep services. But he noted that in 2007, when ETS was poised to launch a new GRE and pulled back, "we had all new materials ready to go and then we had to put everything on ice." He added: "I hope they are serious this time, and follow through."


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