Personalised tests the future of assessment, says ETS

Head of world’s biggest testing firm discusses expansion, artificial intelligence and major changes to the TOEFL and GRE 

July 30, 2023
Source: iStock

Assessments are growing smarter and more personalised as their use booms across education and the workplace, but ensuring results remain trusted is becoming ever more challenging, according to the head of the world’s largest testing firm.

Amit Sevak, chief executive of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), has recently revealed major changes to two of its most used assessments – the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and GRE, used in graduate school admissions – amid widespread questioning of the value of standardised testing and threats to academic integrity from all sides. 

After shortening the tests and streamlining the number of tasks to make them more convenient to take, Mr Sevak said his longer-term vision was to move testing away from summative scores to providing universities with a data breakdown of the various skills of the applicant.

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“A score on a test is often just a number,” he said. “In the future these will be much more detailed and specific to a person’s areas of strength and include recommendations where skills could be improved.”

This, he argued, was one way the GRE could help admissions tutors ensure a diversity of applicants from different backgrounds, countering a view that has become increasingly widespread that standardised tests are a hindrance to such efforts. Concerns that tests are biased towards certain candidates have been cited as one of the reasons universities have moved away from the GRE in recent years.

Mr Sevak said ETS’ tests – taken by millions across the world – go through “intense scientific processes” to ensure they are neutral and can be taken by anyone without being localised to a particular culture or context.  

Despite the apparent decline of the GRE, Mr Sevak said tests in general were being used far more widely than had previously been the case and he saw ETS’ future as catering for businesses seeking to assess staff on particular skills while continuing to work with universities and education providers.

This has allowed for more experimentation – for example, personalised tests that pose different questions depending on a candidate’s previous answers to ensure the “depth of their understanding” is fully assessed.

Mr Sevak said the level of demand also provided ETS with an opportunity to expand its work beyond its primary base of North America.

In the UK, he admitted, this was complicated by the hangover from the firm’s involvement in the 2014 testing scandal that saw thousands of international students accused of cheating after it emerged that two London-based test centres had been at the centre of a fraud operation that allowed people to falsely obtain a pass in the tests needed for their visas.

Many students accused – and in some cases deported – are still fighting to clear their name and Mr Sevak said ETS recognised it had more to do to rebuild trust.

“I know there are still some things we have to work through there, but I would say ethics and integrity are extremely important to us,” he said. “Everything is based on trust in the testing world, so we definitely seek to earn the trust of stakeholders in the UK as we go forward.”

While cheating has been around as long as exams, Mr Sevak said the emergence of new threats including the rise of artificial intelligence meant security of testing had to be a “constant process”.

Open AI – creator of ChatGPT – has claimed its generative software can achieve an 80 per cent mark in the GRE; one of several tests it can pass with flying colours.

This was one of the reasons why physical testing centres would continue to play a key role alongside online testing, according to Mr Sevak, who was speaking after just unveiling a new “state-of-the-art” centre in Shanghai that was set to be rolled out elsewhere.

Artificial intelligence can also help test creators, he said, with technology now being used in every stage of the process from designing and building an exam to marking it and providing feedback.

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