ETS Aborts New GRE

Facing frustrated graduate admissions officials, testing service abandons changes in substance and format of exam.
April 3, 2007

New GRE : testing flop :: New Coke : beverage flop

Sometimes product overhauls never quite work. On Monday, the Educational Testing Service announced that plans to use an overhauled Graduate Record Examination, starting in September, have been abandoned. While the new GRE has been plagued by delays, the announcement is an abrupt reversal for ETS. In February, it announced that the new version would be ready in September.

And the ETS announcement comes at a time that some graduate admissions officials were becoming so frustrated by the reports they were hearing about the new GRE -- especially its availability outside the United States -- that they were considering policy shifts to decrease use of the test.

ETS attributed the change to issues related to the new testing format planned for the new test. Currently, the GRE is computer-based, but not Internet-based. And now, the test will stay that way. But the impact of the ETS decision is much broader. It will also be abandoning plans to make the test longer and to add new features and take away others.

Among the changes that now will not be happening:

  • The GRE's length was to have grown from 2 hours and 45 minutes to 4 hours and 20 minutes, with the additions coming in the verbal and quantitative sections, but the timing will now stay the same.
  • Antonyms and analogies were to have been dropped, but will now stay.
  • More reading comprehension passages were to be added, using a greater variety, but that won't happen.
  • The quantitative section was going to add more data interpretation and take away some geometry, but that won't happen either.

ETS officials said that some of these changes would happen over time, but gradually.

Prior to Monday's announcement, details about the planned changes were available on the ETS Web site, but most of those pages have been removed. The Web site of Kaplan, a test prep company, has a detailed comparison of the tests. Student newspapers have been full of reports of potential graduate students considering the impact of the new GRE on their plans, and educators in India and China -- where many students aspire to attend graduate school in the United States -- have reported widespread anxiety there.

An ETS list of questions and answers for educators said that the testing company's officials "believe the potential risk to testing access outweighed the benefits of immediately moving to the new format," in part because "after a thorough review, it was determined that full access to the test for all students could not be confidently assured."

According to ETS, it had planned to have 3,200 testing centers ready for the new test, but realized that it had not identified seats or places for all test-takers. The changes on which ETS will still go ahead over time will not include a shift in the format of the test, ETS said. Registration for the text is being reopened in some high demand areas such as India, China and Japan.

Major test revisions tend to mean big business for testing companies (many students rush to take the old version before a change) and test prep companies (which help students deal with all their worries about the new test, and coach them for it).  But even if the test prep world gained from the planned test, many there were critical of what ETS was trying to do. "Finally, a test so bad that even ETS pulled the plug," said John Katzman, chief executive officer of the Princeton Review.

Thomas P. Rock, director of admission at Teachers College of Columbia University and president of the National Association of Graduate Admissions Professionals, said that most members of the association "did not seem excited" about the changes planned by ETS. Rock said that many admissions officials had been telling ETS of their concerns -- especially with regard to the ability of foreign applicants to get into a testing center. "As many of our institutions continue to be globally oriented, it was particularly disheartening when we learned that some of our applicants would have access issues to the revised format," he said.

Added Rock: "Many graduate admission professionals were looking at alternate means of evaluation to be sure that all applicants were applying to our institutions with a level playing field. By limiting access to the GRE examination, a segment of our population was cut-off from this standard for admission at many institutions.  Had ETS gone ahead with this launch, I think we would have seen more schools opting out of the GRE as a measure of evaluation."

He said that ETS "did the right thing" on Monday. "They don't want to lose our business, but more importantly, they did this for our applicants, and that is what should be the highest priority.

Testing critics said that they weren't surprised by the announcement. "ETS has repeatedly tried to rush computerized exams into the marketplace before they were ready for prime time," said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. "They pushed these flawed products to increase test-maker income not improve assessment quality or meet students' needs."


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