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Multiple Task Questions

June 25, 2010

The Graduate Management Admission Test -- the dominant test for M.B.A. admissions, but one that is facing competition -- will soon have a new section, designed to test the ability of would-be business students to analyze multiple kinds of information.

The new "integrated reasoning" questions will present test-takers with a spreadsheet, a table, text and other information and then ask either single or multiple questions. While the answers will be multiple choice, there will likely be multiple correct answers, with test-takers asked to list all correct answers. These new questions will replace one of the two GMAT essays and will be reported in a new score, while preserving existing scores for the essay and the verbal-quantitative total. The new section will be added in 2012.

Testing experts see the move as a sign that the Graduate Management Admission Council, an organization of business schools that owns the GMAT, is trying to make the test more focused on management education, probably as a means to fend off competition from the Educational Testing Service's Graduate Record Examinations. In 2003, ETS lost the contract to manage the GMAT, and in recent years ETS has pushed the GRE as an alternative test that business schools might use, setting up the GMAT-GRE competition as one of the hottest in the world of standardized testing.

The reason that the GMAT was open to a challenge is that it is not a test specific to business schools, but rather features general verbal, quantitative and writing sections. While designed to test someone's ability to succeed in a business program, the test itself doesn't stress economics or accounting or any specific business school skill set -- or at least that has been the case until now.

Ashok Sarathy, the Graduate Management Admissions Council's vice president of the GMAT program, said that the changes reflected a broad evaluation of the existing test, as well as interviews with business school faculty members. Sarathy said that what the review found was that test-takers generally earned very similar scores on each of the two essays, so having two essays as opposed to one was adding little information. What faculty members wanted was more of a test that resembled the kind of analysis that business school students actually perform, and that new M.B.A.s might do in their jobs.

As an example of the kind of questions that might be on the test, the GMAC said that students might receive a spreadsheet with data on the number of passengers and flights in and out of 21 airports, and then be asked to respond to a series of statements about the data and/or other information with regard to the various airports. Many of the questions may not be factual, but may be about trade-offs raised by certain choices.

The new questions will take 30 minutes and -- with the elimination of the essay -- will not add to the time of the test (currently 3.5 hours).

Sarathy said that the changes reflected a "continuous evolution" of the GMAT in an effort to try to better predict which people would succeed in business school. "We want to measure readiness to do well in a graduate management program."

Asked if the changes were a response to the GRE, Sarathy didn't focus on the competition, but said that what the changes show is that the GMAT "is the test by business schools for business schools."

The relative strength of the GMAT and GRE is the subject of much debate among their partisans. More b-school applicants take the GMAT, but the GRE has made inroads in terms of the number of business schools that will accept the test as an alternative. David G. Payne, ETS's vice president and chief operating officer for college and graduate programs, issued a statement that said: "Business schools and test takers have told us they are thrilled with our plans for the GRE revised General Test. We are completely focused on delivering all of those excellent enhancements in August 2011." (The new GRE includes several changes, including the addition of 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.)

Some experts who closely follow the testing competition said that they viewed the GMAT changes as very much a response to ETS -- and potentially a smart response.

Shadna Wise, national marketing director for graduate programs for the Princeton Review (which provides coaching for students seeking to prepare for either the GRE or the GMAT), said that the shift in the GMAT made sense to her. She noted that in the current economic downturn, many pundits and others have asked whether business school students have the skills they need to actually lead businesses. "The question people are asking is whether business schools are teaching what the students will need when they graduate" and the new questions seem closer to that kind of skill set, she said.

Wise said the GRE option is something that Princeton Review clients ask about, but she said that many are cautious. She said that for the GRE to gain market share, test-takers will have to hear that a critical mass of students used that test to get into top business schools, not just that top business schools accept the test. "I don't think we have the data yet to answer the questions" that the test-takers have, she said.

Chad Troutwine, CEO and co-founder of Veritas Prep, a high-end test-prep service for the GMAT, said he saw a choice facing the GMAT sponsors: Either they could try to compete with the GRE for use in graduate programs outside of business schools (by staying a general test) or they could become a more business-focused test (which is what they are now doing).

"I think it's smart," he said. "They are trying to distinguish themselves and be less of a generalist test, and I think they have been very wary of the GRE." He said that the additional questions "are about business skills," not general skills.

The shift may favor test-takers who have taken a few years after their undergraduate educations to work in the business world over those who are taking the GMAT as undergrads, he said. He also said that he didn't think anyone would miss the second essay. "It always seemed redundant," he said.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a long-time critic of standardized testing, said that the test changes would need examination by independent researchers to identify any changes in validity. But he said that the shift "has to be analyzed in the context of market competition." In that context, he said, "this is about differentiating the product from the GRE," and the shift makes sense by identifying the GMAT as having a disciplinary focus and not being "a one-size-fits-all test."

While GMAT may still be the top player in the market, Schaeffer said, "this is about trying to prevent an impact from GRE down the road."

 

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