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Pencils Down: Gmat Tests To Be Only On Computer New Format Scares Some; Other Exams Follow Suit

The standardized exams we’re used to - with gnawed-up No. 2 pencils and thick test booklets - are going the way of rotary telephones and manual typewriters.

Today foreshadows the end of a 60-year era in academic testing, when a major graduate school exam will be given in the traditional pencil-and-paper form for the last time. Starting in the fall, the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) - which is required for business graduate school - will be given only on computer.

Unlike the traditional tests, in which students are all given the same questions, the questions will change for each person in a computerized test. If you answer a question correctly, your next question will be harder. If you get it wrong, the next question will be easier. In this kind of “Computer Adaptive Test,” your grade is based on the difficulty of the questions, not just the number of questions answered correctly.

To do well on computerized tests, students will have to master a new test-taking strategy and become confident in absorbing material from a computer screen and manipulating a mouse.

“The tide has turned,” said Andrew Rosen, chief operating officer of Kaplan Educational Centers, which prepares students for these kinds of admissions exams. “The pencil-and-paper test will become the eight-track tape of testing.”

Other major standardized exams scheduled for computerization over the next few years include the widely taken exam for college-bound juniors and seniors, the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), which will be on computer in most urban areas by 2003; the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) for those seeking graduate school, which is to be completely computerized by late 1998 or 1999; and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) will be available only on computer next summer.

David Wilson, president of the Graduate Management Admission Council, which owns and administers the GMAT, said computerized exams have the potential to “test in ways you never could with pencil-and-paper exams.”

While the computerized tests now coming into use are designed to give the same picture of a student’s command of a subject as the current tests, future tests could do a lot more. Students would be able to give moreelaborate answers to complex questions than the current multiple-choice format allows. Computers could also make it possible for students to plot intricate graphs, work on spreadsheets, and draw diagrams to accompany their answers.

“It will be a more multidimensional test that can dig deeper into areas of a student’s knowledge,” said Rosen of Kaplan Educational Centers.

But not everyone is welcoming technology’s foray into the world of standardized academic testing, which has changed little since it was developed in the 1930s. Conditioned by years of darkening the tiny circles on their answer sheets, many students are loath to risk their futures on an entirely unfamiliar exam.

Anxiety about the new format is sending throngs of people across the country into stuffy classrooms and auditoriums today to take the last pencil-and-paper version of the GMAT. About 83,000 people registered for today’s exam - a 25 percent rise over the number of people who registered last June, according to test administrators.

Jason Dubinsky, a New York accountant who dreams of working on Wall Street, signed up for Saturday’s exam, even though he’s not planning to go to business school for a few years.

“The computer test scares me,” the 24-year-old admitted. “I have a hard time comprehending things on the screen. I was never taught to learn that way, so taking the computer version would definitely slow me down.”

Some educators fear that the computerized exam could create yet another barrier to educational equity by favoring those who are adept with computers.

“We know there are pockets of people who have less familiarity with computers, including females, older people returning to school, minorities and the poor,” said Rosemary Sutton, an educational psychologist at Cleveland State University. “If these people are spending energy thinking about how to use the computer, that means they are spending less energy working on the answer to the questions.”

For now, at least, the new computerized tests will be a challenge for nearly everyone because in order to get a high score, students will have to learn different test-taking tactics.

Also, Levy said knowing how to guess is even more critical on the computer adaptive tests. On the pencil-and-paper test, if you didn’t know the answer to a question, you could move on and it wouldn’t affect your other questions. But in the computer test, every question is linked, so a bad guess leads to an easier question, which could ultimately result in a lower score.

Advocates of computer exams - primarily the companies that develop the tests and prepare students for the exams - said test-takers are understandably nervous about the change. But they are confident that students will ultimately appreciate the benefits.

Still, not every testing company is convinced computerized exams are superior. Administrators for the law school and medical school admissions exams currently have no plans to computerize their tests.

And the American Council on Education, developers of the General Equivalency Diploma Exam (GED) - which equals a high school degree - said it will stick with the pencil and paper test for the foreseeable future.

David Merkowitz, a spokesman for the organization, said, “If we ever went to computers, we’d probably offer two versions of the exam - computer and pencil and paper - because we know that a lot of the population that takes the GED doesn’t have access to computers.”