Oops, We've Given That Test Before

October 29, 2010

The Educational Testing Service is canceling all scores on the Graduate Record Examination from China this month because large portions of the test had been used in previous administrations of the exam.

While testing companies periodically have to cancel scores when a testing center makes an error or gives an incorrect version of a test, making an error throughout China has major ramifications. About 24,000 test takers -- most of them likely applicants to graduate schools in the United States -- took the GRE this month in China.

According to an ETS spokesman, both the verbal and quantitative portions of the GRE used in China were repeats of previous administrations and thus were not intended for further use in China. Only tests given in China had the problem.

ETS representatives in China have posted -- in English and Chinese -- information about the problem and have pledged to contact all test takers in the country by Saturday to inform them. They will be given the options of taking a make-up test Nov. 20, taking the test at a regularly scheduled time in June, or receiving a full refund. The statement posted in China says that "ETS regrets that this isolated incident occurred and is taking steps to ensure against a similar occurrence in the future."

According to the ETS spokesman in the United States, the process of informing test takers of the news "seems to be going smoothly."

Not everyone is convinced. Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which is a longstanding critic of standardized testing and ETS, said that his group has received e-mail from test takers in China discussing "widespread" anger and indicating that "some students are seeking help to initiate legal action" because of the canceled scores.

Schaeffer said he agreed that the use of previously used tests would have given "a huge advantage" to those familiar with the questions used earlier.

And he said that there is a broader pattern that needs scrutiny. He noted that an ETS subsidiary in India last year experienced major problems with an administration of the GRE in which thousands of students were unable to take the exam on the days for which they were scheduled. At the time, the Indian press was full of reports on student frustration. In both India and China, many students travel to take the exams and undergo grueling test-preparation programs.

Schaeffer said that ETS has "again messed up thousands of lives by inept administration," and that the question is whether ETS's ambitions in foreign testing (a major growth area) have gone too far. "ETS has allowed its marketing efforts to exceed its technical and managerial competence," he said.

One Chinese student who was just notified that his scores were canceled because of the GRE mess-up said via e-mail that the situation was a major problem for him. (The student asked not to be identified for fear of offending admissions or testing officials.) The student said that of the dates ETS has offered, he would need to take the test in November, as the June test would be too late for him to use for some applications. But he said that he is currently planning to take the IELTS test of English as a foreign language at about the same time in November as ETS has scheduled the re-test. This student said that he is planning a month of tutoring for the IELTS exam and thought he was done prepping for the GRE, but feels he must now continue to prepare for that test as well.

He said that ETS has left him with a much tougher month ahead, that he feels he has been hurt by an "irrational decision" to cancel all scores, and that he now faces a prolonged "uptight period."

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