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E.T.S. Perfects Computer System for Test-Taking

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Ushering in a new direction in testing, the Educational Testing Service plans to inaugurate a system that will enable students to take tests on a nationwide computer network.

The system, which will begin this fall for students taking the Graduate Record Examination, is expected to expand next year to include other E.T.S. tests, including the successor to the National Teacher Examinations.

Eventually, it could include the Scholastic Aptitude Test as well, E.T.S. officials said in announcing the plan last month.

Gregory R. Anrig, the president of the Princeton, N.J.-based testing firm, said the system will enable students to take the tests at their convenience, receive their scores the same day, and immediately send the score reports to colleges and employers.

At the same time, he said, the system will enable test-makers to expand the types of assessments they administer. Over the next few years, Mr. Anrig said, the E.T.S. is expected to move to so-called computer-adaptive testing, which allows students to take tests tailored to their individual abilities.

"It really changes the nature of taking national tests for students,'' Mr. Anrig said, "and it begins to allow us to measure more things than paper-and-pencil tests.''

Sylvan Centers Involved

Although some smaller testing programs currently offer examinations over computer networks, Mr. Anrig said the E.T.S. system would be the largest.

Initially, the computer-based test centers would be located in about 100 metropolitan areas in 39 states. In addition to providing sites at the E.T.S.'s seven field offices and at seven educational institutions, the nonprofit testing firm has reached an agreement with Sylvan Learning Centers to provide test sites at about a fourth of Sylvan's 500 educational centers.

Mr. Anrig noted that the agreement prohibits Sylvan--a for-profit company that offers after-school classes in basic subjects--from coaching for tests administered at a center.

"Tips and tricks to crack the test, you will not see us doing,'' Douglas L. Becker, the president of Sylvan Learning Systems, said.

"But we are in business to help kids do better in reading and mathematics,'' he added. "If a kid works with us for six months, and then takes the S.A.T., I don't think the E.T.S. would have a problem with that.''

In the future, Mr. Anrig said, computer-based tests would also be available in high schools, colleges, and computer centers.

Jules B. LaPidus, the president of the Council of Graduate Schools, said many students may prefer the convenience of having the G.R.E. administered three times a week, as it will be through the computer system, rather than five times a year.

The cost for taking the G.R.E. on a computer will be $90, compared with $45 for paper-and-pencil administration, a fact that has raised concerns that the program might work to the disadvantage of lower-income students.

But Mr. LaPidus said the higher cost was unlikely to deter students from applying to graduate school, since they could continue to elect to take the test in the traditional fashion.

Other Tests Down the Road

Beginning in the 1993-94 school year, the E.T.S. plans to offer the successor to the National Teachers' Examination on computer as well.

The three-part test, known as the Praxis series, will include a test of basic reading, writing, and mathematics skills for college students entering teacher-training programs; an assessment of pedagogy and subject-matter knowledge; and measures of performance in a classroom. (See Education Week, Sept. 12, 1990.)

Nancy Green, the director of teacher certification for the Kansas Department of Education, said states would welcome the computer-based system.

"A concern for states is the amount of time an individual must wait [for test results] when they have completed all the requirements for certification,'' she said. "Anything that allows scores to be reported to us in an accurate and timely fashion will be welcome.''

The E.T.S. is also developing other examinations for the computer, including the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards and the College-Level Examination Program.

Farther down the road, according to Mr. Anrig, the firm plans to develop the S.A.T. for computer. But because of the large scale of the college-admission test--1.6 million S.A.T.'s are administered annually, compared with 380,000 çŸòŸåŸ's and 375,000 N.T.E.'s--that test poses formidable technical problems, he said.

Tailor-Made Tests

Some observers have questioned whether computerized testing might offer an advantage to students who are familiar with computers.

But Michael J. Feuer, the project director for a recently released study on testing conducted by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, said there is no evidence that any social or ethnic group has less familiarity with computers, because of the widespread availability of such products as Nintendo and computers in schools.

And Mr. Anrig said the E.T.S. program does not require students to be computer-literate, and that it provides a short tutorial to familiarize test-takers with the system.

Perhaps the most far-reaching implication of the computerized program is the possibility of ushering in large-scale computer-adaptive testing.

Under such a system, the test is, in effect, tailored to an individual's own ability level. Depending on a student's answer, the test moves on to a higher or lower level of difficulty.

Such tests, according to the recent O.T.A. report, "can establish an individual test-taker's level of skill more quickly and, under ideal conditions, more accurately than conventional paper-and-pencil tests.''

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