Changing Pencil For Computer Gives Tests Flexibility

THE No. 2 pencil - that trusty tool for standardized tests - is going the way of the fountain pen. Testing companies - and test-preparation organizations - are turning instead to computerized exams. While this transition will be slow, it is already under way.

The nation's largest testing company, Educational Testing Service (ETS), began offering a computerized version of its Graduate Record Examinations (GREs) in the fall of 1992. In this testing year, the company expects nearly 10 percent of the 400,000 students who take the GRE to use the computerized version. By 1997, the Princeton, N.J., company plans to phase out the paper version completely.

This spring, ETS will offer its nurses' certification tests - NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examinations) - on computer for the first time. And it's looking at others.

The company is not yet ready to convert its most popular exam - the Scholastic Assessment Test or SAT - to computer, says spokesman Kevin Gonzalez. ``It would not be until the end of the century.''

But some test-preparation companies think a computerized SAT will come much faster. ``It's where we're headed and it's where we should be headed,'' says John Katzman, president of The Princeton Review, an independent company that offers preparation classes and books for several standardized exams. The company has also begun offering a 3-1/2 inch computer diskette with its $30 SAT preparation book that holds sample SAT questions.

TEST-PREPARATION experts cite many advantages to computerized testing. For one, tests are easier to schedule. Instead of picking one of only five days a year to take the GRE with paper and pencil, students can take it on computer almost anytime. Some computer centers in New York offer the GRE five days a week.

Another advantage: students receive their scores within minutes instead of weeks. And since the tests are adaptive, they don't throw every question at every student. Instead, they use previous answers to determine what questions to ask next.

There are some glitches. The computer doesn't allow students to skip questions and come back to them. The most severe challenge is keeping students who take the tests at different times from telling each other the questions. Mr. Katzman of The Princeton Review suspects that is why ETS is cautious about computerizing the SAT.

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