One is meeting the namesake of India’s famous cricket captain, Rohit Sharma, on the eve of the India-NZ ODI for a conversation. Sharma, Global SVP, Higher Education and Work Skills, ETS (which administers the TOEFL & GRE), is hoping, with a wide grin, that the star appeal of captain Sharma will rub off on him and ETS as well.
ETS unveiled tests of shorter duration — TOEFL on July 26 and GRE on September 22. In this interview, Sharma, who is an engineer from IIT Kanpur and an MBA from the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School, explains what necessitated this.
ETS has tied up with the Ministry of Education/NCERT for the PARAKH project, which will set the norms and guidelines for student assessment and evaluation for all recognised school boards in the country. It also has a partnership with the Ministry of Skills for training ITI students, and a project with the AP government to train three million students across schools for TOEFL. Excerpts:
The TOEFL and GRE are seeing reduced test times. How has this been managed and why did you need to reduce it?
The GRE is used as a test for admissions into graduate programmes and to test someone’s readiness for them. It calls for a higher level of abilities, whether verbal or quantitative reasoning. Over the years, a team of psychometricians and research scientists have continually evaluated different items we put out there to test skills and, over time, with advances in research methodologies, we have been able to shorten it. Earlier, let’s say, it took us four questions to measure a person’s quantitative skills — which is about arithmetic, critical thinking and ability to analyse; now we have been able to, through the design of questions in a certain way, reduce that to only two questions with the same level of reliability and validity.
We also did it since both the test takers and institutions are looking for a less lengthy test and a less stressful experience. By taking into account the feedback from the key constituents who accept these tests, we were able to reduce the overall test time from four hours to just under two hours. And, we just launched the revised GRE at the end of September, and so far the response has been encouraging.
So, despite the test time being crunched, the quality of assessment remains high?
Absolutely! ETS was incorporated in 1947 and is the world’s largest not-for-profit assessment organisation. It has delivered close to 50 million assessments which are accepted across 12,000 institutions in 160 countries. We have hundreds of psychometricians and research scientists on the team and there’s nothing that comes out of the stable that hasn’t been backed by research and validated. Contemporary tech advances allows us to administer the optimal test. In a few years, we may even shave-off more time on the tests if we are able to accurately measure the same skills in a shorter period of time.
How did you crunch the TOEFL time as well?
Earlier, we used to have certain questions which were not scored; it was included by our research team to see how the students were performing on those items. Now we have enough of a bank of test items, so we are able to test more rapidly. Removing unscored items, removing the breaks and using new research methodologies have allowed us to reduce the time from over three hours to under two hours without compromising the reliability of these assessments.
A lot has happened in the field of education over the years, but the core of the tests remains the same fundamentals which have been in place for the past several years?
The fundamentals remain the same — English proficiency in TOEFL, for instance. There have been changes that are happening that are not apparent. TOEFL has four sections and that doesn’t change: the ability to read, write, speak and listen effectively. One of the things we are updating is the question type to reflect what is happening in the classroom. For example, we have introduced a change to reflect what happens in today’s environment, where a professor puts out something in a hybrid model and other students are reacting. So you are contributing to an ongoing discussion, which you couldn’t do earlier when we were testing on paper. We want to be reflective of what’s happening in the classrooms. So, it fundamentally measures those four skills, but also reflects the environment you are going to operate in. We are helping test-takers get ready for that.
What kind of numbers are you seeing in terms of test-takers?
Broadly, we are seeing healthy growth in double-digits in different parts of the world. This is reflective of the demand and rising income levels around the world where many students are looking to going overseas for an education. But, in areas where the currency is volatile, we haven’t seen that kind of a growth. Globally, we do around a million tests every year for TOEFL, and for GRE it’s marginally less.
What about opening more test centres in India?
We monitor where demand comes from and make tests centres accessible. We are also working with higher education institutions in India, signing MoUs, so that students who are interested in pursuing higher education abroad, get the right resources to prepare. We are also training their faculty, holding master classes, webinars, and we are planing to roll out in many of these universities, and also introduce testing options in these institutions itself.