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Bowing to Criticism, ETS Suspends Computerized Tests in 20 African Nations

Many educators say shift away from paper-and-pencil exams was unrealistic and unfair

The Chronicle of Higher Education
By LISA GUERNSEY

Six months ago, the Educational Testing Service switched to computer-based versions of its tests in many countries. Students all across Africa suddenly had no choice but to take a computerized version of the Test of English as a Foreign Language, instead of the traditional paper-and-pencil examination.

But last week -- after receiving a rash of complaints -- E.T.S. decided to suspend computer-based testing in many African countries. The testing service is now planning to reinstate paper-and-pencil exams in at least 20 countries that it acknowledges were not well-served by the switch to computers.

"We weren't providing the amount of access we needed to provide," conceded John H. Yopp, E.T.S. vice-president for graduate and professional education.

In fact, in sub-Saharan Africa, the numbers of students taking the English-language test, known widely as "the TOEFL," had declined significantly since the testing service switched to the computer-based version. From July 1997 to December 1997, when the TOEFL was still offered on paper, more than 6,200 tests were administered. Yet for the same period in 1998, when only a computer-based version of the test was available, only about 2,600 tests were given. E.T.S. officials noted that the 1997 numbers were higher than in previous years, probably because students knew it was the last time that a paper version of the test would be available. Just the same, E.T.S. officials acknowledged that the drop is significant.

The TOEFL is the most popular of E.T.S.'s tests offered abroad, mainly because universities in English-speaking countries use it to determine the language skills of their incoming foreign students. Students outside the United States who want to enroll in graduate programs at U.S. institutions also take the Graduate Record Examination or the Graduate Management Admission Test -- both of which are administered by E.T.S. and are offered on computer. The decision to suspend computer-based testing in some countries also applies to the G.R.E. The GMAT, however, will still be offered mainly via computer in most countries.

The testing service's about-face was applauded by those who had protested the switch to computer-based tests, although they remained concerned about the effect of the transition in other parts of the world.

David Wiley, president of the African Studies Association and director of the African Studies Center at Michigan State University, said he was "delighted" that the testing service was planning to change course, "even belatedly." Carol Wilder, an administrator of professional and cultural exchanges in the United States Information Agency's Bureau of African Affairs, called the news "excellent." She added, however, that she would continue to urge E.T.S. to return to paper-based testing in other parts of the world where problems have arisen.

Many educators are still angry that the testing service would decide to switch exclusively to computer-based versions of its tests in countries that lack good roads and reliable electrical service.

Complaints about E.T.S.'s shift to computer-based testing had been mounting for months. Officials at United States Information Service posts in Africa had reported that students in many sub-Saharan countries were unable to travel to the sites where the computerized tests have been administered.

The main problem, the officials said, centered on E.T.S.'s reliance on "mobile test centers" that were set up temporarily at universities or hotels. The mobile centers, which used laptop computers, were supposed to serve students in countries where permanent facilities had not been established, and students who lived more than about 125 miles from permanent centers in their own countries. Students in many countries were simply not able to travel to the mobile units, the U.S.I.A. officials said, and test dates sometimes were changed without adequate notice.

E.T.S. officials said that they, too, were worried about the ability of the mobile centers to serve test takers in many places, and had been monitoring the situation.

But word of the problems spread quickly, and scholars started to raise alarms publicly last month. The African Studies Association and H-Net, a worldwide network of scholars in the humanities and social sciences, sent letters of protest to the testing service, demanding that it reconsider its shift to computerized testing.

Both groups said that if E.T.S. was determined to shift to computerized tests, it should at least insure that they would be available to all African students.

"The problems with shifting to computer-based testing at this point are legion, and they will result in a dramatic decline in African students attending American universities," said Mark Kornbluh, executive director of H-Net, in an interview conducted before E.T.S. announced its new plans. Mr. Kornbluh is an associate professor of history at Michigan State University.

In addition to problems with access to the testing sites, some scholars raised concerns about African students' familiarity with computers. "It is unwise to force the computerization of sensitive screening tests in Africa until the infrastructure, student skills, and test mechanisms are tried and tested," said Mr. Wiley, of the African Studies Association.

E.T.S. had been planning the shift to computer-based tests for several years. The computerized versions, Mr. Yopp said, include a diverse mix of questions for measuring students' knowledge, return scores faster, are more cost-effective, and offer test takers much more scheduling flexibility, since they can be offered on demand.

Even those who opposed the switch to computer-based testing in Africa say that the new tests are better -- as long as students have access to them. U.S. educators who work with foreign students have been pressing for an overhaul of the TOEFL for years.

To provide computer facilities in which students could take the new tests, E.T.S. contracted with Sylvan Learning Systems, a private company that operates computer-based-testing centers. Outside the United States, Sylvan began to establish two types of facilities: permanent computer-based-testing centers, and the mobile test units.

In July, E.T.S. adopted a new policy: If a country had a permanent testing facility or was scheduled to be visited by a mobile unit, students there would be required to take the computerized version of the TOEFL or the G.R.E. In sub-Saharan Africa, where only 14 of 46 countries had permanent testing centers, E.T.S. was relying on the mobile units to meet the needs of test takers in most of the other 32 countries.

E.T.S. is now abandoning mobile testing in Africa, said Mr. Yopp. In countries that were supposed to be served by the mobile units, the testing service will begin a return to the paper-and-pencil tests at the end of this month. By April, Mr. Yopp said, the G.R.E. will again be offered in a paper-and-pencil version. And by May, the TOEFL will as well.

Mr. Yopp stressed, however, that details of the change were still being worked out, and that re-establishing paper-and-pencil tests in all countries that were to be served by the mobile units would take time.

Countries that had been scheduled for visits by mobile test units this spring will probably be the first in which the paper tests will be reinstated. Those countries include Benin, Burundi, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gambia, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, and Togo. The city of Mombasa in Kenya, and five cities in South Africa, also will be included, even though those countries have permanent testing centers, as those facilities are too far away for many students.

Countries that have been visited by mobile units already this year will probably also be returning to paper-and-pencil tests, in time for their next test dates in the fall, Mr. Yopp said. Those countries include Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, and Swaziland, and, in South Africa, the cities of Pietersburg and Port Elizabeth.

Students in those sub-Saharan countries that now have permanent, Sylvan-run testing centers will still be required to take the computer-based tests if they live within 125 miles of the centers. Those countries include Botswana, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mauritius, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Mr. Yopp said that Sylvan would continue to use mobile units to administer the GMAT to students who cannot easily reach permanent computer-based-testing centers.

E.T.S. also plans to evaluate how the mobile units are working outside Africa, Mr. Yopp said, adding that it would make similar changes if access to the tests appeared to be a problem in other countries. The vast majority of complaints about access, he said, have concerned sub-Saharan Africa.

The transition to computer-based testing outside the United States has proved to be a struggle for the non-profit E.T.S. The protests over access problems in Africa are only the latest in a series of complaints lodged against the testing service since it unveiled its plans a year ago. At that time, E.T.S. announced that the fee for the TOEFL would be going up -- from $75 to $125 for students taking the test outside the United States and Canada. However, in response to a flood of complaints, the testing service decided to drop the fee to $100, the same as that now paid by test takers in the United States and Canada.

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