By Kingson Man, Daily Staff Reporter
Come April and August of every year, more than 60,000 nervous students cram into classrooms and test centers across the country to take one of the most important tests of their adult lives: the Medical College Admission Test, or the MCAT. The Association of American Medical Colleges – the organization that administers the MCAT – announced during the summer that the grueling eight-hour exam will be truncated to a five-hour test that students must take on a computer.
The MCAT will be administrated exclusively by computer starting in 2007, with the last of the paper exams to be given next August.
Ellen Julian, director of the MCAT and associate vice president of the Association of American Medical Colleges, said the full transition to a computer-based exam was made to take advantage of the efficiencies of the electronic format.
“We don’t have to print and ship tens of thousands of test books and arrange rooms and hire proctors and such,” she said. “Now we just send electrons over the wires.”
One benefit for students includes a halving of the amount of time it takes for scores to be reported after the test date: from 60 days down to one month. Another big change will be a 10-fold increase in the number of opportunities to take the test, which is currently only offered twice a year. Aspiring medical students will be able to take the revamped exam on any of 20 different dates throughout the year.
Thomson Prometric, a computer-testing company, has been awarded a seven-year, $30 million contract by the AAMC to convert the exam to computer format. Past MCATs have offered students the option to take the test on a computer, and field trials have been held. However, 2007 marks the first time the test will be administered exclusively by computer.
One welcome change will be the shortening of the now-epic test to five hours.
“Students expressed concerns about staring at the computer screen for eight hours, so this seems more humane,” Julian said, adding that in the event of a change in test difficulty due to the new format, scores will be re-calibrated by the AAMC.
“We will re-scale so that the center (of the statistical curve) will be about the same as in other years,” Julian said.
Test-preparation companies such as Kaplan and The Princeton Review have responded cautiously to the changes.
“We recommend students take the pencil-and-paper exam while they are given a choice,” said Liz Wands, director of graduate marketing for The Princeton Review.
Amjad Mustafa, MCAT program manager for Kaplan, affirmed the test prep company’s preference for the paper exam for the time being.
“You’re always going to be safer taking the MCAT that test preps have experience with,” said Tiffany Leslie, assistant director of marketing and outreach for The Princeton Review in Ann Arbor.
“The AAMC will still be getting out the kinks (of the computer-based test), while the students will be the guinea pigs,” Wands said.
“It’s a different testing environment. The person on the computer to the left of you might be taking the (Graduate Record Exam), while the person to the right of you might be doing the (Test of English as a Foreign Language). Students need to block out the environment better,” Leslie said.
Another concern raised by test-preparation companies was a perceived inflexibility of the computer format.
“It’s a passage-based exam,” Mustafa said. “Your ability to highlight and take notes will be affected. – It’s causing a bit of anxiety for the students.”
Other potential problems include difficulty reading and annotating on a computer screen, as well as disruptions due to computer malfunctions.
According to a recent Kaplan survey, 82 percent of students taking the preparation course said they thought they would perform worse on a computer-based exam.
Mustafa emphasized that students need to develop a new skill set to tackle the new MCAT. Dan Saddawi-Konefka, an MCAT instructor for The Princeton Review, agreed. His personal test-taking system could become obsolete with the new format.
“One of the strategies we teach is to map out the passages and write notes in the margin of the tests. Usually when you circle a word, it means something; when you underline, it means something else. You have less flexibility on the computer than on paper,” Saddawi-Konefka said.
The courses that test preparation companies currently offer are only expected to change minimally.
“We don’t anticipate the way we teach the MCAT to change,” Wands said, adding, “We are absolutely ready to prep students the right way when the test changes.”
The AAMC has been working in conjunction with Thomson Prometric to add computer tools to help students taking the MCAT. Test-takers will be able to highlight passages and cross out wrong answers on the computer screen. The AAMC advises students to take the worries raised by Kaplan and The Princeton Review with a grain of salt.
Talking to your university pre-med advisors would be the best source of information,” Julian said. “These commercial test preparation courses make their living off people being scared.”