The Educational Testing Service, creators of the examinations that give Americans the jitters -- the SAT, GRE, PSAT -- today takes a major step toward eliminating the standardized paper and pencil test with the introduction of a new computerized version of the Graduate Record Examination.
Though paper and pencil will remain an option for now, by the 1996-1997 school year, all 400,000 students who take the GRE each year for admission to graduate school will do it on a computer.
Instead of sitting in a room with hundreds of people on one of five annual test dates, students will be able to go to a computer center and take the GRE on any of several days during the week, for a total of more than 150 days a year.
Instead of waiting four to six weeks for results to arrive in the mail, they will be able to press a key on their computer at the end of the exam and get their scores immediately.
Instead of paying $48, they will pay $93 for the computerized GRE.
And instead of everyone taking the same GRE test, the "adaptive" computer exam debuting today means that rarely will any two students get the same questions. Students will start with a randomly selected question of medium difficulty.
If they answer correctly, the computer feeds them a harder question; if they answer incorrectly, they get an easier question. Each successive question gets harder or easier depending on how they did on the previous question. The more difficult questions the student answers correctly, the higher the score.
"This is a huge step in changing the very nature of testing in the future," said Nancy Cole, president-elect of the Educational Testing Service, which annually administers 9 million tests in the United States and abroad.
"We actually believe taking the test by computer will make for a more humane process," she said. "Students will be much more comfortable in a small setting, taking the test on the day they are ready."
But longtime critics of standardized testing, who contend that the tests are biased against female and minority students, remain skeptical.
"Simply automating a bad test does nothing to solve the problems of a bad test," said Cinthia Schuman, director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a not-for-profit organization in Cambridge, Mass., that monitors standardized tests. She asked if a poor child from a city school that has few computers would be at a disadvantage.
Ms. Cole said the testing service has done extensive trial runs with "computer-naive" students to make sure they are not at a disadvantage.
There is no target date yet for computerizing the SAT, which 1.8 million high school students take for admission to college each ,, year. Ms. Cole said there were not enough computer centers available yet. The computerized GRE is being offered at 170 locations. The paper-and-pencil test is now given at 1,149 locations.
For the past year, a computerized version of the GRE has been available on a limited trial basis. But until today, that test was not the adaptive version; it was the same test as the paper and pencil version.
Techniques that are taken for granted will disappear with the adaptive computer tests. You can't skip a question, and you can't go back to a question once you lock in the answer.
Ms. Schuman of the Center for Fair Testing worries that a fascination with the technology will obscure "the real issue." The reason, she said, that "women score 50 points lower than men on average on the SATs and blacks 200 points lower than whites is that the tests are culturally biased."
She said these tests measure nothing more than the ability to take these tests and are not predictive of performance in college. She is also concerned that poor students will be discouraged by the fee increase.
Testing officials say people with better scholastic preparation in high school do better on the tests. They point out that the fee can be waived for those who cannot afford it.