In this episode, Rohit Sharma, Sr. Vice President of Global Higher Education and Workskills, explains how ETS made the GRE almost two hours shorter (without cutting any sections) and why that’s a good thing for test takers – and institutions. [SHOW SUMMARY]
Are you wondering what the new shorter GRE is about? What does it mean for you as applicants and test takers? This episode is for you! We’ll be discussing the new shorter GRE format and how it affects test-takers with ETS’ Sr. Vice President of Global Higher Education and Workskills.
An interview with Rohit Sharma,Sr. Vice President of Global Higher Education and Workskills at ETS. [Show Notes]
Welcome to the 531st episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for joining me. Today’s show is all about test prep, and I’d like to start with a quick one-question quiz. What is the paradox at the heart of graduate school admissions? Well, I’ll tell you. You have to show that you belong at your target programs and simultaneously that you stand out in the applicant pool. Doing so is paradoxical and challenging. Accepted’s free download, Fitting in and Standing Out: The Paradox at the Heart of Admissions, will show you how to do both. Master this paradox, and you are well on your way to acceptance.
Our guest today is Rohit Sharma, Senior Vice President of Global Higher Education and Workskills at the Educational Testing Service, better known as ETS. Rohit earned his bachelor’s in engineering from IIT Kanpur in India and his MBA from UVA Darden. He has worked as a consultant for Boston Consulting Group and for over 20 years he has contributed internationally in management and product design and development in the fields of digital skills training, assessment, and higher education.
Rohit, welcome to Admissions Straight Talk. [2:03]
Thank you, Linda. Thank you for having me.
I’m delighted to speak with you today. So GRE is undergoing some transformations, right? ETS is giving us a whole new GRE. How is the new GRE going to be structured? [2:07]
Great, thank you. First of all, the GRE is going to be similar in many ways to the old one in terms of having the same three sections that we have always had, which is the verbal reasoning, the quantitative reasoning, as well as the analytical writing section. So those three things remain unchanged. But the big news here is that the time that the test used to take previously, which was close to four hours, is going to be reduced in half to just shy of two hours. So that’s a big change that we are making.
And then I assume you’re not sacrificing any kind of predictability or validity to the test in cutting it in half. [2:51]
Of course, that was almost like I left it hanging there so that you asked me that, but it goes without saying-
I fell for it. [3:09]
Yes, no, thank you. But it goes without saying that as you know, ETS has a very long history of over 75 years that we have been around, and one of the things that we are so proud of is the research that goes behind all of our assessments. So the validity, the reliability of these measures, these assessments, the constructs that they measure continues to remain the same as it was before.
So the total time is much less. You still have the same three sections. So is each section just basically cut in half? [3:32]
So there’s a couple of things that we have done. So in many of these assessments, Linda, historically, there’s always been an unscored section. And before the world of generative AI, as well as other technological advances that was needed to make sure that we can test out items that we can then put in future tests because these items have been tested in a particular way.
So first of all, we remove that unscored section so that itself produces a certain amount of time. The second thing we did was in the longer version of the test, which is the current one, there was a break in the midway for around 10 minutes. So we removed that given that the assessment is now shorter, and then we looked at each one of our sections. And over time as technological advances have been made, we have updated our item banks, the question types, so that we are able to measure the same constructs, whether it’s around verbal reasoning or quantitative reasoning with lesser number of questions. So then the third thing that we did was to reduce the number of questions in each of the three sections.
So the main motivation was that you feel that with current technology, current understanding of testing, you needed fewer questions to have a valid test. Is that kind of what was going on? Am I understanding you correctly? [4:52]
Yeah, so look, we always are constantly seeking feedback from our ecosystem, which we define as a, two-sided marketplace. On one side, we have institutions that are consuming the outcome of these assessments as one of the many data points that they use in the decision-making process. And on the other side there is the test taker who is taking the test. And as we all know taking any kind of a test can be a stressful experience for many of us. We’ve all been through that.
And so as we have constantly sought feedback from both sides, this was one of the areas that we wanted to make sure we are incorporating wherever technology has made progress as well as our research methodologies have been updated to reduce the total testing time. So that was to ensure that we have a better test taking experience as well as from the institution side, we have also reduced the time it takes to deliver our results. Previously it used to take around 10 to 15 calendar days, and we are reducing that by roughly half of that. And so the institution as well as obviously the test taker would be able to get the results much sooner, and that’s the start of a journey in our continuous improvement that we are doing.
So this has been in the works for a while. It’s not something that happens suddenly. [6:21]
No, no, it’s not that we woke up one day and said, let’s reduce the-
There’s a lot of work that continues to happen over years and months, making sure that we are at a point where we are then able to announce it to the outside world because we have been testing many of these things behind the scenes.
Got it. When is the change occurring? [6:40]
So the test administration starting in September, I’ll look at the actual exact date starting on 22nd of September. Any new administration that is going to happen starting 22nd of September will be this modernized version of the test, the shorter length in time.
Would there be any reason why somebody would want to rush to take the new test? I mean, is prep material out? Are the test prep companies prepared for the change or do they even need to change anything because the test is basically testing the same thing? I think there’s one section you dropped, right? [7:05]
No, we did not drop.
So you didn’t drop any sections. So the content is the same? [7:24]
Exactly. So the content is the same. We have reduced the number of items in each of the content. So I think what you were probably referring to is in the analytical writing section, we used to have two items and we dropped one of those items. But look, I think as people who are preparing for this assessment, if they feel that they are ready, they’ve done the right preparation and they have scheduled their exam in the next couple of months before September 22nd, they should go ahead and take it. There’s no reason to wait. But for those who are starting the preparation and also have the flexibility or the schools for which they’re applying, when is the deadline perhaps always taking a shorter test is more palatable to some folks. And so-
A lot of folks. [8:13]
A lot of folks, so they may choose to wait a bit, but there’s no difference from a test prep standpoint because even those who are in the test prep business so to speak, it’s the same items. It’s just item types have been reduced.
You mentioned that you removed the essay. It was the analyze an argument essay. Why was it that one that got kicked out? [8:28]
So again, this goes back to the research that we put behind all of our assessments. So that analytical writing section had two components. One was analyze an issue and the other one was analyze an argument. The latter one is the one that we dropped. As you look at these two topics, essentially in many cases they were quite similar. It is essentially looking at taking a particular topic and making sure that you’re able to put both a compelling argument that is backed by evidence, your sentence construction is appropriate, and you follow a logical pattern as you think about it so as to present the right evidence supporting your argument.
And so whether it’s analyzing an issue or analyzing an argument, many of those things were similar. In analyzing an issue, one of the things is it brings out also more creativity or originality from the candidate because this is taking something that is quite broad in scope and asking somebody to take a point of view on that. And so it brings out that aspect of somebody’s skills as well, communication skills as well. And so we thought in the grand scheme of things, as you weigh the pros and cons of both of that, that came out slightly ahead. And this is also the feedback that we got from institutions that used to look at these scores while accepting or looking at candidates and evaluating candidates holistically.
Is there going to be any change in the price with the shorter exam? [10:06]
No. We are keeping the price the same. As you can imagine with many of these things, the price is reflective of both the quality and the complexity and the technology and the research that goes behind any of these assessments.
Not the time of the test taker. [10:24]
That is just one factor amongst many factors.
Hopefully our candidates place a value on convenience and us giving back two hours of their life.
How is scoring going to change or is it going to change? [10:37]
Actually, no, it’s not going to change. And that’s one of the things that we have worked very hard and that’s why it has taken us some time to get to this point. The score scales that are there, in many cases, these are embedded rightly or wrongly in many of the admissions process. And so once you start to change the score scale, it becomes a bit challenging to roll out any changes that we are doing on the assessment. And the last thing we wanted to do was to make sure that we disrupt the admissions process, both on the education institution side, but also on the test taker side. And so the score skills remain exactly the same, which is between 130 to 170 for our verbal reasoning as well as quantitative reasoning and a score scale of zero to six on the analytical writing.
That’s a major advantage because both the institutions and the test takers are comfortable with it, and they know how to interpret it. [11:27]
Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.
Now, one of the purposes of an aptitude test is to predict future performance. At least that’s what I always was told. How has ETS researched or confirmed that the new shorter GRE is going to be at least as predictive as the older longer GRE? [11:38]
So I want to start off by making a note that the GRE is not an aptitude test. I think one of the things that as we think about, and there’s broader perception out there that the GRE is also predictive of performance. I think we have always positioned GRE as a graduate readiness assessment, are you ready for graduate work or not? Whether somebody completes a graduate program or not, there’s so many variables on that. Anybody who is even claiming to say that we can predict whether based on just one assessment that the person is going to complete or not, I’m not sure if I will personally buy that argument either, but it is about graduate school readiness. And one of the things that we have done is making sure that our research team, our psychometricians, our assessment teams are putting together assessments that are at the graduate work readiness level. And so that’s why we feel confident around what the GRE is predicting. It is predicting whether you are ready for graduate work or not, rather than predicting whether you are going to complete a graduate program or not.
I’m going to push back a little bit here now. [13:07]
I’m not a psychometrician and I’m not an expert in testing, but I’ve been an admissions consultant for 25 years, and I’ve always heard that the GMAT predicts success in the first year of MBA programs, and the LSAC says that the LSAT predicts success in the first year of law school. So was I misinformed? [13:11]
No. Look, I think we all have to be careful when we say predicts success and how is success defined? And it would be helpful to double click on that definition and understand what does success mean?
It was performance. But anyways, go ahead. [13:45]
Yeah. So I would say that… Look, one of the feedbacks over the years, as you think about what is the purpose of any admissions’ assessment. We maintain that the purpose of an admission assessment is to provide data point that would be helpful in making a decision about a candidate. That data point should be looked at – in holistically with, in conjunction with other proofs of whether the person is ready for graduate work in this particular case or not.
And so I think that’s how it should be viewed as anything more than that, whether it’s a GPA predictor, because as you can imagine, there’s so many things that happen. Even if you were to say it is a predictor, I would say it’s a predictor at a point in time when you have taken the assessment or predictor of academic results, whether the person is actually being successful or completing. There are so many things that happen in a person’s situation, a personal situation happens, and so on and so forth. Financial changes happen in a person’s life that it’s very difficult than anybody to say with any amount of certainty that the person is going to complete or not complete. Not to say we are not confident around the assessment, but the assessment is measuring certain aspects and not the-
Readiness not for future performance. Got it. [15:08]
If one is applying to law school or business school and has the option to take the traditional exam for that education, the GMAT for business school, the LSAT for law school, why would you recommend that they take the GRE? [15:12]
Good. Go for it. [15:28]
So first of all-
This is your chance. [15:32]
Yes, absolutely. And so this is for everybody who’s listening, the GRE is the most broadly accepted assessment across many disciplinary fields, whether you’re going for a master’s in arts or sciences or a specialized program like the MBA or the law school or PhD programs as well. So first of all, one assessment that can open the window to multiple disciplines. The second is a lot of people over time think about either doing a double major or maybe even thinking about changing their streams. And the GRE is valid for five years. So once you have taken that, and for whatever reason, if you decide to change a stream or you could be thinking of upskilling yourself, you don’t have to take the GRE again. And so those are two great reasons. And the third one is also, as you think about, and while this may or may not be a big point for many people, even relatively speaking compared to other assessments in the marketplace, it is slightly more affordable, I would say. So those are three reasons why somebody should think about the GRE.
Sounds good. Okay, that was a great answer. Thank you. How are schools receiving the new GRE? Are they happy about it because they could score reports faster and… [16:36]
No, it’s been great reception. Honestly, I think as schools were in some ways waiting for some changes and innovation to happen, this is an assessment that has largely remained the same for a long period, and a couple of things that the schools are excited about. First of all, there’s no changing in the score scales. We just talked about that. And that’s something that will then allow them not to alter their admissions process. So that’s a big welcoming factor for everybody. They’re also very happy that we have retained the analytical writing section because as you look at some of the other assessments that are in the marketplace, and I shall not name them, some of them have decided to take out the analytical or the writing section.
And one of the feedback we have gotten is that now, especially I think the world has changed so fast in the last six months in the world of ChatGPT, understanding whether the writing sample is authentic or not is going to be really important. And so by having part of the assessment that assesses that capability is important. And so schools are very complimentary that we have kept that. In fact, we’ve gotten great feedback from several different schools, including Vanderbilt, including the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. So it’s been great feedback so far.
Now, one of the trends in higher ed, certainly since 2020, but I think it even started before that, is to move away from testing. And more and more graduate programs have gone test optional or are issuing test waivers or are simply not requiring a test, and they’re sometimes criticized for increasing inequity and lack of diversity in higher education. Two questions. First, what are the benefits of having a test and test score for applicants when the test is optional or waivers or issued? And then we’ll get to the equity question next. [18:06]
Great. So we strongly believe, and this has been the feedback also that we have gotten from several candidates that have taken the GRE, that GRE scores enable prospective applicants to differentiate themselves from other applicants in the field. So that is clearly one advantage, a person, whether a GRE score could be getting as their application is being evaluated, that they have a GRE score, which is a great indicator of their graduate level readiness. I think the second is I also feel that as you embark on this grad, any kind of a graduate program, it is a commitment you’re making to yourself. It’s a financial commitment, it’s a social commitment. It’s going to change your life around it.
And so you need to also make sure that you are confident that you are ready for graduate level work or not. And I would argue that those are two things for which we would strongly encourage people to think about it, and especially on the first one, as you stand amongst a pool of applicants. We have also heard anecdotally from many of our candidates that it has helped them in many cases to be considered for additional scholarships of financial aid, everything else being equal. As you can imagine, it’s a very competitive world out there. You want to stand out in a crowded field.
I would like to add one, if you don’t mind. [20:08]
Yeah, please go ahead.
And that is, if somebody, let’s say was immature in college and their grades were not the best maybe until their senior year or they weren’t the best, one of the ways of showing academic aptitude on the graduate level is to take the GRE and get a good score. [20:11]
Absolutely. No, thank you. Thank you. You hit the nail on the head on many cases where people, for variety of reasons, undergraduate education did not pan out as expected, like you said. And that is a great point, Linda.
So now getting to the equity question. Again, aptitude tests are sometimes criticized for increasing inequity. How would you respond to that concern? [20:43]
I would say that we need to take a step back as a society and in this particular issue of why are tests being made optional. And I would argue that it is at this point largely a US institution phenomena. And it is largely driven by, I would say, commercial decision-making as we are all aware that the higher education institutions in the US are seeing an enrollment decline. And part of the variety of reasons behind that, and that will probably require another podcast, but part of it is the high cost of education. And as a result, people, whether they are able to see the return on their investment in education or not, we still strongly believe that long-term education is a great investment in somebody’s own future. And so if you are an admissions director or even a vice chancellor at a particular institution and you are looking at how do I get more students, you want to remove every friction point that is there in the process.
And so many of the decisions around, not all, but many of the decisions around making test optional or waiving a particular assessment is driven because of that. Now, having said that, I think we as key players in this assessment space also recognize our responsibility to ensure that we continue to improve upon and remove any unintended biases that may be there in our assessments. Obviously, our assessments go through so many different levels of rigor and testing before we put an item out, but at the same time, we also recognize just like every other human being who’s writing an assessment, there could be inherent biases that people may or may not be aware of. So we are constantly, and we made a commitment that as with every new version that is out, we are reducing if there are any biases out there. But I think to also take a very utopian view and say that just removing the assessment improves equity levels as well as access for all, I think is also taking a very simplistic view of the whole issue.
Maybe throwing out the baby with the bath water. [23:04]
Yeah, thank you. You said that. But no, look, I think it is a complex issue. On one hand, we want to make sure that more people have access to education. And so, one of the things that we do is people who may be coming from economically weaker sections of society and for variety of reasons, if they cannot afford to even pay for the assessment, which is just a few hundred dollars compared to tens of thousands of dollars for the actual study, we have a process through which people can apply for waiver or reduced fee. So we’re doing our bit to make sure that we don’t become that hindrance in somebody’s access to higher education. But at the same time, it’s a broader societal issue that we all need to grapple with. Because on the other hand, if you look at countries outside of the US where there are regions of the world where assessments are just on the norm, that’s one way to ensure that you are ensuring “meritocracy” in the system that you are taking in the best and the brightest on certain fields as an example.
All right, let’s change it a little bit. Now that we’ve, I think covered the new test, do you have any GRE prep tips for our listeners? [24:07]
Yes, absolutely. So I would say you should always, best to start with a practice test because it’s taking almost like a diagnostic and seeing where you stand. And that will also then allow you to focus on your preparation because depending on what has been your background, your undergraduate field of study, the kind of work that you’ve done, you may be stronger in certain areas compared to other areas. And so by taking a practice test where the gaps are so as to speak, and then you can focus your test prep on closing those gaps. Other tips include – education is a discipline, so even preparing for any kind of an assessment is getting ready for that marathon. So set a schedule, try to stick to that schedule. It’s always important to do that. And then taking advantage of the resources that we offer, we have several free resources, including our monthly test prep workshop. We have the GRE mentor course, we have our practice test. Many resources are free, some are available for purchase as well, but you can always look it up on our website at ets.org/gre/prepare.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [25:32]
We are in the assessment industry, so perhaps let’s chat about the future of assessment where assessments are going.
Where are they going? That’s a great one. I wish, I would’ve thought of that one. [25:47]
It is evolving to be fair. Assessments are going through a change. What we have started here with the GRE, and we are also doing it with some of our other assessments is first improving the test-taker experience. We want to make sure that the test-taker historically has been a secondary actor in the whole assessment space, and we are making sure that we are improving the test-taker experience. This change that we have done in terms of shortening is just one of the first of many steps that we are going to continue to do to improve the test-taker experience. But as we think about any kind of improvements that we do also will need to continue to come along with the relevant reliability and validity of the test.
So as we think about where the future of assessments are going, Linda, I think that summative assessments, this is high stakes, sometimes called high stakes or summative assessments, there’ll always be a role for these assessments for purposes like an admissions, which is a life-changing event and hence high stakes. But there’s also a growing need for formative assessments to measure many other skills. So in some ways what we largely talk about in assessments like the GRE or cognitive skills, your verbal reasoning, your critical thinking, but there are also other skills that are equally important to make sure that the person is successful in any endeavor that they’re taking. Whether these are other kinds of what we call the affective skills. These are skills that are around things like can you recognize emotions? Do you have empathy? Can you regulate your emotions? But also, there’s affective, there’s behavioral skills like things like leadership, your perseverance, and then the core cognitive skills around like we talked about, your critical thinking, problem solving and things of that nature.
So assessments are going through an evolution where there’s going to be more of formative assessments. That means that early enough, making sure that they are regular dipsticks that are happening, that can give you feedback around where the gaps are so that you can work to close that gap rather than just providing a score at the end. But then also expanding the scope of assessments from just pure cognitive to other areas of skills measurement that have been very difficult and hard to measure historically. And that’s where we are also putting a lot of research into making sure that we are coming up with those constructs that can measure those in the right environment.
Fascinating. I interviewed a few months ago Dr. Kelly Dore, who’s the developer of a situational judgment test used by medical school admissions. And I think in medical school there is a lot of development experimentation, innovation because they’re also trying very hard to test competencies as opposed to just specific knowledge. And again, you have the whole situational judgment test that they’re using as a supplement to the MCAT. [28:29]
Correct. So again, in that situation, I think there is not going to be one silver bullet that you have one assessment that gives you everything that you need to know about somebody. I think a combination of things that used in the right conjunction can provide enough insight into a candidate or a candidacy of somebody that allows you to make a decision with better confidence. That’s what these assessments are supposed to do.
Do you see assessments ever being used by individuals as a way to guide them in a decision-making process. In other words, if you’re going to be assessing leadership skills or teamwork skills or some affective element factor in your own development, would you want to know what area needs work? [29:31]
Absolutely. And we’ll see a lot of movement towards that… The same way we’ve been talking about the whole re-skilling, upskilling revolution that is happening. It’s not necessarily going to be confined to technical areas. Yes, you need to know about the latest ChatGPT and how to deploy that. But at the same time, if you’re not able to then deploy it in the context of an organization where you have to not just solve for a problem, but you have to do collaborative problem solving, then you’ll only be so much successful. And so I think people who are more self-aware, understanding and some things are more, as they say, your personality, right? Which there’s an argument that personality is difficult to change, and that is true for a large extent. But I think being aware of what your personality is and how you behave in certain circumstances, that awareness itself for people is a very key step in their own development.
Because if I behave a certain way under stress, then I know that if I do certain things when I’m under a stressful situation, at least I’m aware of it. So that when I’m in a professional setting and it’s a stressful situation, I’m making a mental note to myself that don’t bite my fingers or don’t shout at somebody as an example, whatever the case may be. And so I think that is going to be very important to people who have that level of self-awareness, in my view, are going to be much more successful. And part of that is to understand and to understand. You need to “assess”.
That’s fascinating. I’m so glad you asked that question. Thank you, Rohit. In addition to, thank you for that last question and answer, I want to thank you for joining me today. It’s been a delightful conversation, utterly fascinating.
Where can listeners and test takers learn more about the new GRE and the prep materials that ETS offers? [31:36]
- ETS GRE
- About the Shorter GRE
- Free GRE prep materials
- Shorter GRE Test Coming September 2023
- Fitting In & Standing Out: The Paradox at the Heart of Admissions
- Testing, Testing, 1-2-3: What’s the Right Test Prep For You? – podcast Episode 443
- Crush the Test by Crushing Your Test Anxiety – podcast Episode 521
- How to Eliminate Test Anxiety – podcast Episode 427
- What’s New at Cornell’s Masters in Engineering Management – podcast Episode 516
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