When she prepared for the graduate school admission test this fall, Amy Black, a 25-year-old Baltimore schoolteacher, traded in her No. 2 pencil for a computer keyboard and mouse.
That's because the last paper-and-pencil Graduate Record Examination was given last spring. Instead of facing an answer sheet full of black circles waiting to be filled in, the 400,000 grad school hopefuls who take the GRE each year will hereafter stare at a computer screen.
"I would certainly much prefer to take a paper test," said Black. "It's a little intimidating because I don't think most people have taken tests that way before."
They'll have to get used to it. The GRE has joined a growing number of standardized tests administered solely on computers. The list includes the GMAT, the admissions test required by many business schools, the Test of English as a Foreign Language, and many medical and insurance licensing exams.
The increase in computer-based testing has some test takers and advocacy groups concerned.
"Transforming a lousy test from pencil and paper doesn't magically make it a better test -- it makes it worse," said Robert Schaeffer, public education director at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a Massachusetts-based group that has long been critical of standardized testing.
Schaeffer says he is concerned that the computerized test has changed the psychology of test taking -- students are no longer allowed to change their answers or skip over questions.
"You've got to guess and feel comfortable about guessing," he said, adding that test takers who are less familiar with computers may be at a disadvantage.
"Older students in general have a tougher time with these tests," said Peter Syverson, vice president for research and information services at the Washington-based Council of Graduate Schools. More than half of today's graduate students are over 30, and about 20 percent are over 40.
For her part, Black found the actual test disconcerting -- the test taker typing furiously next to her created a racket that penetrated the earplugs she was given, and people constantly moved in and out of the room.
"I'm easily distracted," she said, "and the test can be a little distracting.
Even for newly minted college graduates who have worked with computers before, studying for the computerized test can be a challenge.
Kerry Stephenson, 23, who graduated in the spring from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, had to drive 40 minutes to her parents' house in Bricktown, N.J., to practice for the GRE because she doesn't have a computer at her home in Red Bank.
She found the computer version more difficult than the pencil-and-paper test she had taken before.
Because of the computerized GRE's adaptive nature, test takers must answer each question before the next question appears. If the answer is correct, the computer automatically supplies a more difficult question; if the answer is wrong, the next question is easier. Scoring is based upon the number of questions and difficulty of questions answered. With an adaptive exam, test takers can't go back because the next question is based on the last answer.
"The clock is counting down in front of you," Stephenson said. "I'm just concerned about stressing out between the questions."
The changing nature of the test means abandoning the time-tested technique of skipping harder questions and going back to answer them, which has many students worried.
Instead of studying on her own as she would have for the paper exam, Black plunked down $900 for one of Kaplan Educational Centers' test preparation classes. Stephenson took a course offered by the competing Princeton Review.
Strategists at Kaplan and other centers now advise students to be familiar with computers, warm up with a few questions before starting the test, devote more time to early questions, and to answer every question -- a major change in tactics.
Black appreciated the help. "In order to do well, you really do have to have some strategy," she said. "The thing that I miss about paper-based tests is having more control over how and when you answer the question."
Although she was worried beforehand, Stephenson's score went up 520 points on the computerized version. "I prepared more this time, and maybe the adaptive test helped," she said.
Randy Goldberg, a mechanical engineering graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University who took the computerized test nearly two years ago, also likes the new medium.
"I loved it on computer," he said. "I thought it was much less stressful. Once a problem was done, it was done."
Research by the Educational Testing Service, which administers the exam, suggests that scores on the paper and computer tests are comparable, according to Kevin Gonzalez, an ETS spokesman.