Electronic Yields

Charting the Race to Artificially Gauge Intelligence

The reluctance of the College Board to implement interactive testing may not bode well for ETS's long-term goals. Although it has successfully moved several exams to electronic platforms, with fees absorbing most of the cost, nothing compares to the vast numbers involved with the SAT. With millions of potential test takers a year, many of whom opt for multiple sittings, the reality of setting up enough secured test sites and ensuring access to all schools in all states is overwhelming—so much so that the Board is hesitant to embrace First-Generation, let alone future ones.

To help sidestep this obstacle, ETS contracted the Sylvan Technology Center, a Maryland-based company with secure test sites around the country, to provide them access to already-established locations. This partnership has allowed ETS to avoid the exorbitant cost of building their own sites, which would have rendered their long-term strategy near impossible. But, despite the successful integration of Sylvan Center, the Board still hasn't committed to switching gears and ETS can't move forward without its permission.

However, the College Board may be forced to confront the future sooner than it would like. The possibilities of savvy software have attracted investors as well as instructors, many of whom believe that standardized tests do not accurately assess student aptitude. According to an ETS report written by Randy Bennett, Speculations on the Future of Large-Scale Educational Testing, "Change should come first in the test design, which reflects an outmoded psychology." Schaeffer would also not bemoan the disappearance of the present format, which, he says, carries an innate bias. "Our current system is based on the Socratic methodidea of asking a question when you already know the right answer—and there are several cultures that are not accustomed to that style of interrogation."

Enter Next-Generation, the second phase of ETS's game plan, which will aggressively utilize multimedia and interactive features to gauge reasoning. To demonstrate what the future might hold, Bennett cites the AP exam in U.S. history, in which students could use excerpts from diaries, articles, and maps to formulate answers. An interactive question might run a newsreel or a reenactment of a political speech and ask students to discuss the events depicted, thereby measuring audio, visual, and reading comprehension skills simultaneously. Foreign language exams would lend themselves particularly well to such testing, with oral responses captured through computer- controlled microphones and cameras.

The final phase of ETS's brave new world involves long-distance learning, which won't be possible until Internet security becomes inviolable. When it is, students anywhere in the world wishing to take a GRE, for example, will proceed to a secure test area, have a retina or a palm scan, and begin an interactive examination that will be sent over the Web back to the home site. This, Generation "R," is the most ambitious phase of all and, ultimately, will include virtual reality classes that essentially allow a student to "attend" a university from halfway across the globe.

Whether or not ETS is able to proceed this far is undecided, but the arrival of Next-Generation is imminent. While software developers wrangle out the details, some who will be most affected by its onset aren't impressed. "There are kids who test well and always get good scores, even when they don't study," says Gidon Fisher, a senior at Manhattan Solomon Schechter High School. "The ones in my school who don't score well hire a tutor to teach them the tricks." When asked about the possibility of interactive testing eliminating such an advantage, Fisher remains unconvinced. "It might help to keep me awake during the test," he says, "but that's about it."

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