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Computer Testing: TOEFL, GMAT, GRE

Standardized entrance exams required for admissions to U.S. universities have made the revolutionary leap from paper to computer. Today the most common tests — TOEFL, GMAT, GRE and SAT — are given nearly exclusively on the computer. There is no escaping this new testing technology!

What is a Computer Test?

There are two types of computer tests: computer based and computer adaptive. Computer based tests are best described as paper tests in digital format. Everybody gets the same questions in a predetermined order and you can often skip around within a test section. Computer Adaptive Tests (CAT) are completely different.

A CAT is administered on computer, a format unfamiliar to most test takers. There is no more writing on the test booklet, you can only see one question at a time, and the reading passages don't fit on the screen so you cannot see the entire text at once. Students have to use scratch paper to take notes and scroll down to read passages. But the biggest difference between the CAT and the paper test is in the way the test works.

You know how a paper and pencil test works. You can answer the questions in any order, skip around a section, and change your answer by erasing the mark on your grid and filling in another oval. However, on a computer adaptive test, the test decides which questions you see based on your performance earlier in the section. You have to answer the question on the screen before you can move to the next question, and once you answer a question and move on, you can't go back to change it.

To find your score, the CAT looks at the difficulty level of the questions you saw and estimates your ability level. This estimate is then converted to a scaled score of 200-800. Also on the GMAT, the writing section has also changed: now you must type your essays rather than hand write them. Therefore, if you are not a good typist, you may be at a disadvantage.

TOEFL Computer Testing

The success of the GMAT's transition to computer caused the Educational Testing Service to move ahead with its plans to convert other tests to computer format, including TOEFL. The computerized TOEFL was the first step in a multi-phase program to develop a more accurate assessment of a person's ability to understand and use "real" English. It is an improved, more precise way to evaluate students' language proficiency. This will also affect international students who want an MBA as they will take both the GMAT and TOEFL exams on computer.

The computer-based TOEFL is the only form of the TOEFL offered in North America, South America, Europe, the Middle East, Australia, and many countries in Africa and Asia. Presently, and until the year 2001, the computer-based TOEFL will gradually be introduced into China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India, Thailand, Pakistan, Taiwan and Vietnam. Once the computer version is introduced in a country, the paper exam will no longer be offered.

How Does the Computerized TOEFL Differ from the Paper Version?

Computer-adaptive format — In the paper version of the exam, test-takers answer the same questions in the same order. The TOEFL is computer-adaptive — the computer "adapts" to the test-taker's performance.

Here's how it works: The first question is of medium difficulty. If answered correctly, the next question given will be more difficult. If incorrect, the next question will be easier. The test progresses according to this formula, and the level of difficulty is factored into the score. In this way, the computer zeroes in on the level of English proficiency. A tutorial at the beginning of the exam teaches test-takers about the computer and its functions.

The computer-adaptive format is a completely new kind of testing, and many students will not have taken an exam on computer before. That is why it's critical that students familiarize themselves with the computerized TOEFL, and new test-taking approach that it requires beforehand. For example, students should devote more time to the first five questions, which have the greatest impact on their score. (A traditional paper test approach would avoid spending too much time on any one question, as all questions usually have the same value.)

On the computer TOEFL, the listening comprehension and structure sections are adaptive, while the reading comprehension section is "linear."

The Essay Section

The computerized TOEFL includes an additional component instead of the traditional three: the written essay (which test-takers can type or handwrite). The 30-minute essay section—formerly an optional test known as the Test of Written English (TWE)—is now mandatory on the computer test. The essay is scored on a scale from 0 to 6. This score is calculated into the range of the "structure" score, and weighs just a little more than half the value of the structure and written expression combined score.

Not Just Multiple Choice Questions

Foreign and second language specialists believe that the ability of computers to offer full-motion video clips of "real" people speaking "real" languages will revolutionize performance-based language teaching and testing. The computerized TOEFL uses full-motion video clips in the listening comprehension section, making the exam much more interactive. The computer TOEFL includes graphics, matching questions and multiple-response questions.

Different Scoring Scale

Scores of 550 or 600 are no longer the target ones. Computer TOEFL scores range from 0 to 300, with 213 as that all important target number.

Frequent Test Administrations

Test-takers make an appointment to take the exam at centers around the world. Appointments can be made within a few days of testing.

It's become clear that, eventually, all standardized admissions tests will be on computer. It's an exciting step into the future and a glimpse of things to come.