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Screen Test: GRE, GMAT, TOEFL now get online

   Gopika Vaidya

Six weeks. That's how long it took for Mallika Kapoor to study for her GRE. Six weeks of memorising word lists, solving math problems and deciphering obscure analytical questions.

And then two weeks before she was to give it in October, she got a letter from the testing authorities in Allahabad informing her that due to the lack of seats she would be unable to give her GRE.

All of a sudden Mallika's carefully laid plans seemed to crumble. She would miss her deadlines, she wouldn't be able to apply for the fall semester, she'd never make it to grad school next year. So she packed up her Barrons' guides and decided to forget about it till the next date for the test rolled around.

Till a letter arrived two months later on December 15, stating that the GRE was taking place on the 20th and she could give it if she chose to.

She spent the next five days going over countless practice tests. She gave the exam, keeping track of the grid on the answer sheet with a wooden ruler and carefully circling the circle with the correct answer with a black lead pencil. Mallika ended up with a score of 2,220 out of 2,400 and she did manage to go to grad school.

Three years later…

Vishal Gupta called the Sylvan Testing Service, the Indian branch of the Electronic Testing Services in New Delhi to register for a computer-adaptive GMAT. They gave him an option of when to take the test at two centres in Mumbai. He could choose any day of the week, any time of the day. Once he'd registered to give the GMAT, the ETS office sent him a study guide and a CD with practise tests, rules and regulations and FAQs. He could also solve practise tests on sites such as Crack-gmat (www.crack-gmat.com).

Vishal gave the test on the day he'd chosen. He sat before a computer screen and typed or clicked to answer questions. As the test progressed, the questions got tougher and tougher. At the end of the four hours it took him to take the test, Vishal was exhausted. But when his score flashed on to the screen right after, a 690 out of 800 points, he felt really good knowing he'd done well and more importantly, that it was over. He now knew exactly, which universities would accept his range of scores and where he could apply.


Top ten tips for adaptive tests
The MCSEtuotr.com article is a good place to understand how computer adaptive tests work.

Crack GMAT (www.crack-gmat.com)
Comprehensive site on how to, what else, crack the GMAT! Offers a free full-length downloadable test, as well as study guides on each section with practice exercises and five full-length GMAT computer-adaptive tests to get you prepared for the D-Day, all at a price.

A Free online GMAT course
It offers a 20-question diagnostic test and over 100 practice questions. Additional features include GMAT and MBA information. Though free, you need to sign up.

The Princeton Review
This site needs you to register first, but offers a free full-length test online.

GMAT Buster
Offers free GMAT questions and links to sites with free downloadable tests.

Graduate Management Admission Council
Offers free downloadable software from PowerPrep and information on taking the GMAT, MBA schools, loans, career paths and jobs. Includes online GMAT registration.

This is the official GRE site and offers downloadable GRE test software from PowerPrep.

A Free online GRE course
Offers tutorials, practise questions, downloadable PowerPrep software and a GRE FAQ. Though free, you need to sign up.

Offers detailed information on taking the GRE, including a free full-length downloadable test, study guides and a GRE Helpline.

GRE Guide
Comprehensive GRE guide with free downloadable test links, tips on essays and applications and links to home pages of US universities and colleges.

Vocabulary workout
Offers a list of 1,160 words to improve scores in the verbal section of GRE general test. There's also a 'vocabulary workout' and software sections to learn more how to make it easier to memorise such vocabulary.

Offers free tests and a host of information on the GMAT, GRE, TOEFL and other tests. Needs member log in.

Offers a free downloadable test program that includes a full-length practice test for the GRE, GMAT and TOEFL along with information on schools and universities in the US.

Offers free sample tests, test strategies, online tutorial and preparation software for downloading.

Every year, hundreds of students send fat application packets to universities across America, to which are attached the scores of the required tests - the GRE or 'Graduate Record Examination', GMAT or the 'Graduate Management Admission Test', specifically for MBA students and TOEFL or the 'Test of English as a Foreign Language'.

Up to two years ago they spent hours studying for these exams with voluminous tomes titled Barron's GRE guide and the Princeton Review and did practise tests that resembled the actual exam, where an answer sheet comprised a grid of tiny ellipses, the correct one to be filled up completely with pencil. Exams were conducted just twice a year: in October and December.

So if you were bumped off the October list like Mallika was, you were automatically considered a spring semester candidate, since your scores didn't reach you or the colleges you were applying to, till two months after the exam, which was way past the deadline.

But in August 2000, testing in India changed for US aspirants with the introduction of the Computer-Adaptive Test (CAT). The exam - the GMAT, GRE or TOEFL - is conducted entirely on the computer. Multiple-choice questions appear on the computer screen and students have to indicate their answer by clicking the mouse at the appropriate place.

An employee at the United States Educational Fund in India feels that most students have become computer friendly and taking the exam isn't a source of tension for them like it was in the case of the paper-based test.

It's called computer 'adaptive' testing because the software used is such that the level of difficulty of your next question depends on the correctness of your previous response. In other words, each test is 'adapted' according to a students' level of ease in answering questions, and so no two tests are alike. ETS and the Sylvan Testing Service, however, did not respond to emails enquiring exactly what software is used and how it works.

Students sit at cubicles with computers that display one question at a time, chosen from a large group of questions that have been categorised according to subject and level of difficulty. At the start of the test, questions are of average difficulty. But as students answer these questions, depending on whether they are correct or incorrect, future questions vary in levels of difficulty accordingly. The more difficult questions answered, the higher the score.

"The key is when you have a computer-adaptive test, they start randomising questions and almost customising the test for each student," says Madhvi Desai, famous educational consultant who has been practising in Mumbai for the past 13 years. "So when Student A sits down to give the test, depending on how he or she scores initially, the questions keep getting tougher."

Gupta, who gave his GMAT on October 22, 2001, says, "In the computer-adaptive test, you have to answer every question. You can't go to the next one. After you answer a question, you go to a higher level, so even if you mark a question wrong, you have to answer it to move on in the test, and in the process you might get a good score."

An article on the ETS site quotes Sydell Carlton of ETS Test Development as explaining, "Matching students according to their test scores and then examining how they did on individual test questions helps us to determine whether the test questions themselves may be creating problems for a particular group. Questions on which groups of test takers with similar scores performed very differently are identified for further study."

Desai, however, feels that the psychological comfort of being able to backtrack and change answers, like in the paper-based test, is tremendous. "It's a split-second realisation of a mistake made earlier and a split second correction," she says. She does, however, agree that students have had to adapt because of the sheer volume that ETS has to deal with, as well as the tension of having the choice of giving the exam only twice a year.

For students worldwide, the biggest difference between the paper-based test and the CAT is the choice to cancel scores. Previously, if they messed up the test, their scores went to the colleges they had chosen. But with CAT, they can cancel their scores if they feel they've performed badly. The only drawback: they could've done well, but by cancelling the scores before they are revealed, they are taking a risk.

"Indian students assume that the first score will be held against you if you cancel it, which isn't the case," says Desai. "They can take the test again in four weeks and most importantly, they can meet deadlines, unlike in the older days, where if you didn't do the October-December tests, you automatically became a spring candidate."

For Gupta, there was no question of exercising this choice. "I knew I didn't want to cancel my scores because you don't know how you've done and I didn't want to give the exam again soon," he says.

However, for Shilpa Barua, who took the GMAT in Mumbai in November 2001, cancelling scores was the only option. "I started studying from the GMAT books and then did tests online," she says. "I thought my Achilles heel was math and so I concentrated on that. When I actually sat in the test, it totally stressed me out."

Shilpa feels that she would have been more comfortable with the paper-based test since it offers the option of backtracking to questions and mulling over them. "When I came to the reading comprehension, it was very tough. You have to keep scrolling back and forth. I took so much time reading it that I didn't have time to finish it. There were just words and words and words. So I said 'What's the point?' and cancelled my scores.

Shilpa does plan to take the test again, but isn't sure when. She does, however, feel that the computer-based test is "a big money making racket" as "by cancelling your scores, ETS ensures that you will do it again and that way they can make more money. After all, there's a reason Harvard did not accept GMAT scores till 1995."

At the end, it comes down to how effective the computer-based test is in helping students score better and ease additional tensions that existed with the paper-based test. Gupta feels it's all a question of preparation, from knowing what you can take in with you to the examination centre to knowing the kind of questions asked. He does admit though, that no practise test prepared him for the actual GMAT, as it was much tougher with a different format to the one online.

Desai's views are broader: "90 days of preparation, and 120 minutes of a test will decide if you're going to a top 10, 20 or 50 school."

 --Click For America
 --Dr Know on how to study in the US
 --Studying Abroad: 10 sites that make it happen
 --Seven sites on campuses abroad

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