Grad school entrance exams now take longer

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Students who sat down Monday morning to take the Graduate Record Examination in 230 countries and regions worldwide were being tested in more ways than one.

They were the first to take the Educational Testing Service's heavily revised GRE. Redesigned to help graduate schools better gauge students' analytical and critical thinking skills, the new GRE includes additional vocabulary and math questions and is about 45 minutes longer than the previous test.

While higher-education experts agree that the changes to the GRE are the most substantial since ETS switched from paper tests to computerized exams in the late 1990s, they are split on whether the test has gotten harder -- or just more stressful.

Christine Betaneli, manager of external relations for ETS in Princeton, N.J., said the new test was not designed to be more difficult or easier than before since it still "assesses the same skill areas" as the old version: analytical writing, quantitative reasoning and verbal reasoning.

Until Monday, the GRE was a "computer-adaptive" test that adjusted the difficulty level of the test after each question. The new GRE still adapts to a student's performance; but instead of tweaking the intensity from question to question, the difficulty level adjusts after one 20-question section.

That switch allowed test developers to build more flexibility into the exam, Ms. Betaneli said.

"Previously, students had to answer the question on the screen before moving on to the next one," she said. "But now, they can move forward and then go back to the one they want to take their time with."

Although students may have more freedom to jump around within the exam, Lee Weiss, a director of graduate programs and GRE instructor at Kaplan Test Prep, said the GRE's new length -- three hours and 45 minutes -- will tax test takers.

"The example we give students is: You used to start at 9 and finish at noon, when you get hungry and go get lunch," Mr. Weiss said. "But now, noon rolls around and there is still another hour of questions to complete. It's important just to stay mentally motivated to get through."

To help prospective test takers, the University of Pittsburgh invited Kaplan to campus in February to give an information session on what the new GRE requires and administer a free, half-length practice exam.

Barb Juliussen, an associate director in the University of Pittsburgh's Career Development Office, said the Kaplan program was extremely popular with students.

The company told her the practice exam at Pitt was one of the best attended sessions in their history.

But Paul-James Cukanna, associate provost for enrollment management at Duquesne University, said test preparation companies such as Kaplan might exacerbate students' test anxiety.

"Whether it's the Princeton Review or Kaplan, they'll always create some chaos in the marketplace," Mr. Cukanna said. "You'll think you can't be competitive unless you take a test prep course."

Kaplan's GRE marketing campaign before the new test's unveiling on Monday encouraged students to study for and take the old exam, using the slogan "Escape the change."

Mr. Weiss described the ads as "educational" and "truthful."

"There was a definite advantage to taking the old test, but it's no longer available," Mr. Weiss said. "The new GRE is what's in front of students, and it's really important that they prepare for it and do their best on it."

Students hoping to learn just how well they perform on the new GRE will have to wait: Although students will receive unofficial vocabulary and math scores immediately after they finish the test, ETS cannot issue official scores for fall testers until November or December, Ms. Betaneli said.

Their scores will be issued on a new scoring scale of 130-170 for each section. Tests will be graded in one-point increments.

Before, test sections were worth 200-800 points and graded in increments of 10 points.


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