Changes for the GRE Exam This Fall

The fill-in-the-blank questions get trickier, and some questions don't give any choices at all.

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Grad school applicants be warned: Students taking the GRE General Test this fall will encounter some changes. In November, the Educational Testing Service, which administers the exam, will introduce new question types to the verbal and quantitative sections. These alterations, while relatively minor, are the first phase in a larger effort to make the exam more relevant.

The new "text completion" question asks students to fill in a series of blanks within a short paragraph. Each blank has its own list of multiple-choice options with each option changing the overall meaning of the paragraph and, by extension, the answers for the blanks that follow. And the new "numeric entry" question asks students to type their answer into a box instead of choosing one from multiple-choice options. (The test is taken on a computer.)

"You won't be asked to pick from a multiple-choice list very often in life, but you might be asked to come up with a number," explained David Payne, executive director of the GRE Program at ETS. "We're trying to adopt items that have a closer analog to what students will be doing in graduate school."

It was over a year ago that ETS first rolled out plans for an extensive GRE makeover, which would have eliminated the antonym and analogy questions in the verbal section and switched to a more secure Internet-based exam offered only occasionally throughout the year. (Currently, students may schedule exams at almost any time.)

Test makers scrapped the idea last spring when it became clear that testing centers lacked the computing resources to accommodate the large groups of test takers it would create. (More than 550,000 applicants per year take the test.)

Since then, ETS has taken a more gradual approach to improving the exam. The antonym and analogy questions may still be eliminated eventually, but test makers say it could be years before alternative question types are introduced. The process of changing the exam has been so sluggish that some education experts are concerned the standardized testing industry, which oversees dozens of national and statewide exams, has too many balls in the air.

Others think the gradualism a sign of prudence, given the challenges ETS faced with implementing the new SAT for prospective college students. "Perhaps they've learned their lesson," said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the group FairTest, a Massachusetts-based organization that monitors standardized tests for signs of bias. "Clearly, this incremental approach is better than having a disaster. It creates an opportunity to get the bugs out."

Though question types have been slow to change, exam costs have not. Prices to take the GRE went from $115 to $130 last year and currently hover at $140 for students in the United States and $170 for students internationally. Test makers say they expect no further increases this year.