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20 January 2010

Updates to GRE may improve usability

A feared and respected test, the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) acts as a gate-keeper that stands in the way of undergraduates wishing to pursue their academic goals in graduate school.

According to a press release by Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, the exam will undergo significant changes in 2011. These changes are estimated to affect the close to 600,000 graduate school candidates who take the GRE each year.

Educational Testing Services (ETS), the makers of the GRE, TOEFL and AP exams among others, announced in December the most extensive changes that the GRE has ever experienced in its 59 years of existence.

The changes to the computer-based test include a narrower grading scale, the addition of an online calculator, a longer format, the elimination of antonym and analogy questions and the ability to skip and come back to questions.

“The GRE felt like a dinosaur exam when I took it computer-based,” said senior Jerry Feas, who took the test in November. “Things like the ability to skip and go back to questions will be much appreciated for this particular exam.”

The test, which was scored on a scale of 200 to 800 points with 10-point increments, will be scored after the changes using a scale of 130 to 170 points with one-point increments. The quantitative section of the exam will also shift its focus from geometry to data analysis.

“A longer test and a likely shift to more complex math problems with the introduction of an online calculator will make many test takers apprehensive about the new GRE,” said Liza Weale, executive director of graduate programs at Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions.

The online calculator is a change that will help students work through problems faster.

“The math section without the calculator was really tedious,” Feas said. “Everyone who’s made it through college knows how to calculate percents and multiply decimals by hand. Calculators haven’t made people forget so I don’t see the need to test those skills.”

Students who chose to take the computer-based GRE will have the opportunity to skip and revisit questions within a section. Currently, the test forces test-takers to answer a question before moving on to the next one. The difficulty level of the following question is determined by whether or not the previous question was answered correctly.

Finally, the new verbal section will eliminate the antonym and analogy questions, but will have more reading comprehension.

“Having to memorize the dictionary to deal with all those mostly useless antonym and analogy questions was a waste of time; a focus more on reading comprehension is a good thing,” said 2007 UM alum Paul Burkart, who took the test last October.

The changes come in the wake of two announced and subsequently cancelled changes to the test in 2006 and 2007.

“Given the degree of uncertainty with any major test change and the fact that scores remain valid for five years, test takers could benefit from taking the GRE that they’re familiar with now before the test changes,” Weale said.

According to ETS, the changes will improve the GRE’s security and also give graduate schools a better idea of how well students will do in their programs.

“I think the changes are mostly good,” Burkart said. “While I don’t like the new scoring scale too much, the changes to the actual questions on the test are overdue and much-needed.”

Lila Albizu may be contacted at lalbizu@themiamihurricane.com.