A New Twist on Testing

First it was the SAT, then came the MCAT, but now there is another “New” entrance exam on horizon. Prospective graduate students beware, the new Graduate Record Exam General Test (GRE) is coming, and the changes are astounding. Additional sections, fewer testing dates and a considerably longer format are all part of the new GRE package due to roll out in September 2007.

“This is the most significant change in the 55-year history of the exam,” Director of Graduate Programs for Kaplan Test Prep and Admission Susan Kaplan said. Kaplan is not of family relation to the company.

She explained that the test, owned by the Educational Testing Service, is being redesigned with three key goals in mind. First, there is desire to make the test a better predictor of performance in graduate school. Second, ETS hopes to address test security questions that surround the current format. Third, there is a push to better incorporate new technologies into the testing system. The current GRE contains one verbal reasoning section, one quantitative reasoning section and one analytical writing section comprised of two essay prompts.

“In general, the new test will focus on higher cognitive and reasoning skills,” Kaplan said.

When the new exam is introduced, the verbal and quantitative measures will have one additional section each and will focus less on vocabulary and basic math, and more on complex analysis of text and data.

The writing section will be renamed Critical Thinking and Analytical Writing, a title that more closely matches the skills being tested. Kaplan noted that the new essay section will feature more focused prompts to ensure that test takers are not writing “canned” essays.

“The graduate schools will also be able to see the essays,” Kaplan said, a development that follows similar advances first seen with the roll-out of the New SAT two years ago.

While new content may pose difficulties for some, the scheduling changes also in the works are likely to be more of a problem.

“There are going to be fewer administrations. With the test change the test will only be administered up to 30 times a year, depending on demand in the market,” Kaplan said. “There is going to be a lot less flexibility in scheduling.”

This represents a dramatic departure from the current GRE model, which allows students to take the exam on nearly any day of the year. Adding to this potential mess is ETS’s decision to hold the scores from the first few administrations and release them as a block in November 2007, along with a scale to compare new and old test scores. Applicants with November and December 2007 deadlines will need to take this into account when planning exam preparation and scheduling test dates.

To compensate for fewer test dates, ETS hopes to open more testing centers on each date.

A major technological change will also differentiate the new GRE from the old. While still computer-based, the new test will no longer follow the adaptive model of the current exam. With the adaptive system each computer tailors the test to the taker; successive questions get easier or harder based on previous answers. Under the new model, test takers will receive the same set of questions across the board, which means more questions will be needed to gauge an accurate score.

“The exam is going to get a lot longer,” Kaplan said. “This will require a lot more stamina on the part of the test taker.”

The current GRE clocks in at about two hours and fifteen minutes; the new test will nearly double in length, to just under four hours.

Uncertainty still surrounds many of the elements of the new GRE.

“I don’t think we can say for sure what this new test will be like,” Associate Director of the Center for Career Services Ann Landstrom said. Landstrom directs Colgate’s pre-graduate advising and preparation programs. “Juniors and seniors will have to evaluate both tests and figure out when they’re going to take the exam.”

Despite this feeling, Landstrom offered some reassurance.

“Typically, Colgate students manage the GRE well,” she said. “The support mechanism will still be there [with the new test].”

Career Services offers an array of test prep services, advising and application support across the panorama of graduate programs, often in conjunction with companies like Kaplan. Diverse as these services may be, the office cannot force applicants to prepare for the new GRE.

“If students don’t take initiative to use resources, that’s when they’ll fall behind,” Landstrom said.