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E.T.S. Readying Computer-Based 'Test of the Future'

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Researchers at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., say they are only a year away from completing a prototype "test of the future"--a computer-based diagnostic test that can offer teachers precise information on the kinds of remedial help an individual student needs.

The new tests will add an analytical and developmental dimension to educational testing not previously available, ets officials say, and will move education closer to the kinds of technology-based methods of evaluation now employed by medicine and industry.

A similar computerized evaluation system is also under development by military researchers for use in the screening and classification of armed-services personnel. (See Education Week, April 21, 1982.)

Paper Tests 'Outmoded'

With new developments in statistical and item-response theories and advances in computer programming, says Ernest Anastasio, ets's vice president for research, "paper-based testing is becoming outmoded."

The diagnostic-test system, according to ets officials, is the second phase of a new ets program employing the technological and theoretical advances in computerized-testing services.

The first phase, now being field- tested, uses computer-based tests to determine appropriate academicents for students. The second phase is designed to address the remedial needs of those students not assigned to higher-level courses, according to Garlie A. Forehand, the researcher in charge of the project.

The prototype test, developed with the co-sponsorship of the College Board at a cost of about $1 million over a four-year period, requires each student to answer several series of test items. The questions in each series are designed to offer a progressive evaluation of the student's abilities in the subject area as he completes the test.

Students use computer terminals to answer first a series of "challenge questions" of moderate difficulty, explains Mr. Forehand.

The questions, which test specific knowledge, are similar to those found on a basic-skills test or in textbooks and workbooks, he says.

'Branching' Program

If a student answers the initial challenge questions correctly, Mr. Forehand explains, the computer continues the series, increasing the level of difficulty of the questions. If the student begins to give wrong answers, however, the computerized- test software will "branch" the student into a series of what Mr. Forehand calls "probe questions"--those designed to examine in detail why the student is having problems in the subject area.

Says the project director: "A student having problems on the written-composition section of the test, for example, would be asked to build paragraphs by selecting the next appropriate sentence in the para6graph. He would be asked to explain why he chose or rejected a particular sentence."

In such a process, Mr. Forehand says, evidence of the cause of students' difficulty will "accumulate quickly" and form a pattern that the computer is programmed to discern.

Testing and Remediation

After the test is finished, the computer generates a printout giving the student and the teacher an evaluation of the student's strengths and weaknesses, the type of instruction needed to master the lacking skills, and appropriate materials for use in developmental work.

The test will add speed and efficiency to the teacher's task of assessing learning problems, says Mr. Anastasio, and will help a student avoid "a lot of frustration, because he or she doesn't have to tackle items that are too difficult."

Open-Access Institutions

The new test has been designed in particular to help students who plan to attend open-access institutions of higher education, such as community colleges and state universities, developers say.

According to Mr. Forehand, community-college officials have been telling him for years that traditional standardized tests are inadequate for their needs, offering only a small indication of how well students have mastered prescribed subject areas.

At the high-school level, he adds, the program can be effective in spotting and devising remedies forel5llearning problems before students go on to college.

Three Subject Areas

The test, which is to be field-tested and demonstrated throughout the year at schools, community colleges, and conferences, is divided into three subject areas: written communication, including questions on composition and fundamentals of English; learning skills, such as reading comprehension and notetaking; and mathematics.

The test will be available to a wider market by 1987, according to Mr. Forehand. Some 50 ets staff members, he says, have worked on the project.

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