OPPRESSION IN TESTING: AN EXAMINATION OF HOW COMPUTER ADAPTIVE TESTING ALIENATES AND OPPRESSES
Amber Sunsted, Montana State University-Billings
The recent decision by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) to eliminate the paper-and-pencil version of the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) sheds light on an oppression and alienation exhibited by that group. A Computer Adaptive Test (CAT) has already begun to replace the traditional test, reducing the chances that certain members of society will be able to enter the professional world. Some societal members might not adapt to the technology needed to complete this exam, therefore thwarting their chances of entering graduate school and some areas of the professional world. Critical theories back this claim, giving evidence of how the ETS is taking these measures in order to save an elite consumer.
BACKGROUND ON THE GRE AND CAT
The GRE program offers 17 tests -- a General Test measuring the abilities mentioned above, and 16 subject test in fields such as biology, chemistry, and engineering. Traditionally, students have taken the GRE in a paper-and-pencil version, but a new development now offers the Computer Adaptive Test (GRE Power, 1996). The CAT is structured differently than the paper-and-pencil version, but, according to Kaplan -- the nation's premier educational company specializing in test preparation, admissions, and career services -- the question types are exactly the same (Kaplan's Introduction, 1997). The test is called adaptive because it literally adapts to the performance of the test-taker while he or she is taking it.
Rather than having a preset mixture of easy, medium, and hard questions like the paper-and-pencil version, the CAT selects questions based on how well the test-taker is doing. When he or she begins a section, the computer assumes the student has an average score, and will present a question medium in difficulty. Each time the participant answers a question correctly, the computer adjusts the question to ones of higher difficulty. If the test-taker answers incorrectly, the computer will give easier questions until the participant begins to answer them correctly, at which time it will present harder questions (Kaplan's CAT, 1).
CLAIMED ADVANTAGES OF THE CAT
In addition to these benefits, Kaplan raves "advancing technology means that computer-based testing is the wave of the future. The number of paper-based administrations will gradually decrease" (GRE: Computer, 1997, p. 6)
These predictions by Kaplan are backed by the plans of the ETS to make this alternative to the paper-and-pencil test mandatory. Already it is beginning to phase out the traditional test (GRE Power, 1996). And although the computer-adaptive test is gaining support, there is at least some opposition to this transition. One test preparation company, The Cambridge Review (GRE Power), believes this new form does more harm than good, and in 1996 the governor of New York passed legislation mandating regulations for this type of testing.
CLAIMED DISADVANTAGES OF THE CAT
The Cambridge Review suggests potential graduate students take the CAT only if they are pressed for time. It is the belief of this company that the traditional version is better for almost everyone. "And we believe that most students, even those who are computer literate, will feel more comfortable with the paper-and-pencil version of the test" (GRE Power, 1996, p. 5).
LEGISLATION REGULATING THE CAT
Beginning immediately, one complete set of items used for the computer adaptive Graduate Record Exam during the past three years must be filed with the state Commissioner of Education. In 1997, a portion of the computerized item pool administered in the past year, equivalent to one pencil-and-paper exam must be disclosed. In following years, even more items must be made public (Computer Tests, 1996, p.1).The legislation mandates that by the year 2000, test-makers must develop a process so that all students who take a computerized test will be able to review the questions and answers administered to them. In addition, New York's Commission of Higher Education must be notified, as other exams are adapted to computer administration.
TECHNOLOGY'S PLACE IN SOCIETY
The following quotation, taken from the writings of DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1989), explains how technology is ever present in our society:
It seems abundantly clear that mass communications today are a central part of our institutional structure. That is, while they are industries in their own right, they have penetrated deeply into each of the five basic social institutions of our society: For example, with their emphasis on the services and products of our commercial and industrial establishment, they are a central part of the economic institution. With their increasing role in the election process, their use in various hearings, and their focus on government in the news, they have become a significant feature of our political institution. With their heavy emphasis on entertainment and popular culture, much of which is consumed as entertainment in the home, they are indisputably an important factor in our family institution. For many, the electronic ministry has become a significant part of the religious institution. To a limited degree they are also a part of our educational institution core (p. 124).
CRITICAL THEORIES APPLIED
In essence, the Educational Testing Service conforms to Marxist and critical theory beliefs. By making a computer adaptive test mandatory, the ETS is trying to alienate certain individuals. Not everyone is comfortable using computers; and although Kaplan claims no prior knowledge of computers is needed, that type of testing procedure might be intimidating and confusing, not to mention stressful (Kaplan's Top, 1997). "Some people find the testing environment intimidating. The bulk of the questions will be harder for people who score above the median. You can't skip a question you don't like, and you can't go back to fix up any errors you made" (Kaplan's Top, 1997, p. 2). In addition, despite society's move into the technological age, an adaptation to a new technology can take years. DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1989) argued over 30 years into the adaptation of computers, every household is still not capable of supporting a computer and the accessories necessary to support it. Not only is there a lack of funds to support this type of system, but there is not yet a necessity in every home. This situation reflects the Marxist idea of class struggle. The higher class, represented by the ETS, has the means to purchase the technology of today, and therefore are pushing out the lower class. The lower class in this case is composed of various members of society.
Potential graduate students range in age, sex, race, and social and economic background. By requiring a computerized test, the ETS eliminates and discards those not fitting the standards set by the ETS.
A number of variables explain why people do not fit these standards. First, the ETS would want to eliminate anyone not familiar or comfortable with computers because computers and technology are now an integral part of the business world. Mandating the use of computerized tests assures at least some of these people will be eliminated from potentially entering the upper class, or, in this case, the professional world. Groups that can be alienated by the use of a computer-based tests are for example older adults and the poor. "Despite such low skill requirements, it is often frightening for people, especially adults, to have to learn new ways of doing things" (DeFleur, p. 331). These groups are known to be less likely to adopt to the technology desired by a technological society. By excluding these groups, to highlight only two segments of society, the ETS is supporting a higher network of organizations. In addition, a computerized test ensures older members of society will not break into a professional world expecting the stereotype of young, technology-based go-getters.
The critical theorists' belief that people do not know their own minds can be applied in this situation. Slowly branches of society, such as the ones mentioned above, are becoming oppressed. An elite organization, such as the ETS, is dictating the future of members of society without their knowledge. In fact, society is being structured and manipulated by computers and technology. Machines determine the future of society and its members. When technology is viewed as a tool of convenience and advancement, people fail to see how they are manipulated and oppressed by that technology.
Critical theorists claim that to avoid this sort of society, one must resist power. This resistance can be achieved when society sets standards for the use of technology. When standards are set, society can better monitor and control how and when technology is used.
The examples given above provide evidence that computerized Graduate Record Examinations are allowing the Educational Testing Service to oppress those it does not consider appropriate for an elite technology society, or in this case, graduate schools and the professional world. With the established critical and Marxist theories, members of society are offered a better understanding of how they are oppressed and alienated by this elite group. However, this trend can be reversed when the type of power exhibited by elitists is resisted through regulation.
However, cost still hinders some from benefiting from technology.
Until costs decrease, it is unlikely everyone can move into this
technological age. Therefore, the findings stated above will stand.
If the recent quantum leaps toward embracing a technological society
continue, equity can be attained only through access. Thus, measures
to provide strong funding from governmental educational agencies can
provide inexpensive access for a wide range of individuals across
society^"s strata. Though governmental programs and funding may
provide the technology, training is more difficult to attain.
Therefore, the programs adopted should include training so as to
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Kaplan's CAT Guide: How the Test Works. (1997). [On-line]. Available: http://www.kaplan.c...recat/catworks
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