Educational Testing Service Provides a Facelift for the GRE

When the Educational Testing Service next summer launches its new GRE—the standardized test required for admission to many graduate schools in the U.S.—it will be more user-friendly. It will provide a different grading scale, 30 to 45 minutes of added time, and a new option allowing test takers to move between questions within sections of the test.

ETS officials say the changes, which debut in August, have been in the works for several years and were made to ensure that the exam assesses the skills required of contemporary graduate students. Approximately 600,000 people take the GRE each year. The new test, officials say, will be a better assessment of students’ analytical skills, not just their ability to memorize formulas.

“We want students to have a friendlier test-taking experience,” says Dr. David G. Payne, vice president and chief operating officer for college and graduate programs at Princeton, N.J.-based ETS. “The current test is a little intimidating, in part because students can only answer the questions in front of them.”

The new computer-generated exam allows students to move between sections and allows the use of onscreen calculators to answer math questions, a practice that was prohibited in the past. 

“Our overall goal was to have test questions that were closer to the kind of questions graduate and MBA students were expected to do every day,” Payne says. 

The new exam may benefit minorities, especially when coupled with the Personal Potential Index (PPI), a new ETS web-based evaluation system that rates graduate applicants on specific personal attributes. Together, the two assessments could close the achievement gap between minority and nonminority graduate school applicants, ETS officials say. When officials piloted the new exam, minorities scored comparable to nonminorities.

According to ETS, White males score 100 points higher, on average, than minority men and both minority and nonminority women.

According to Payne, the GRE tests critical thinking skills and reasoning, which “are necessary but not sufficient” to achieving success in graduate school. The PPI, he says, captures other critical attributes, such as ethics, teamwork, resilience and lifelong work experience.

When schools use the PPI, the achievement gap is “significantly reduced compared (with) what you see on standardized test scores,” he says. ETS has launched a national marketing campaign to encourage universities to use the PPI measurement system.

“It takes a while for higher education to get its head around a significant sea change on how to measure students,” says Payne, “but the language that we are using is that it provides a more complete picture of the applicant.”

The University of Notre Dame is the most prominent U.S. institution to require PPI in its admissions process. Notre Dame will use the system next fall, and about a dozen other institutions, including American University in Washington, D.C., are also considering it. Officials at some institutions looking to boost minority enrollment say the PPI may prove beneficial in the long term.

“I expect the Personal Potential Index to help level the playing field for students who, for whatever reason, have not done particularly well on standardized tests,” says Michael J. Sullivan, director of the Hispanic Research Center at Arizona State University. ETS piloted the PPI through Project 1000, an ASU initiative tasked with increasing the number of underrepresented students in graduate school.

“Having a PPI option helps to show a broader picture of the applicant—that they’re more than a GRE score. And that’s something that will expand possibilities for students,” says Sullivan.

American University Provost Scott A. Bass agrees.

“The development of the Personal Potential Index serves as an important step in providing admission decision makers with more background information about critical characteristics of the applicant,” he says. “As educators we need to improve on the rate of graduate degree completion. The PPI may be one more tool in the quest to assist in ensuring a good fit between a prospective student and the graduate program of choice.”

To begin the PPI process, a student creates an online profile at ets.org and provides contact information for a reference, usually a professor or adviser. ETS then interviews the reference, who responds to a series of statements that rate the student on six categories: knowledge and creativity, communication skills, teamwork, resilience, planning and organization, and ethics and integrity. After completing the interview, ETS creates an evaluation report that is sent to the student’s targeted schools.

“This represents a paradigm shift because it will benefit students from diverse backgrounds,” says Payne.