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Adaptive Tests: Are the first questions worth more?

What you need to know about CBT tests

You should know that most ETS university admissions tests (GMAT, GRE, and TOEFL) are now given on computer, although in some countries, ETS is either returning to paper tests or continues to use paper tests.

In this article, TestMagic will cover some of the most important things you need to know to be ready for your test!

Some questions are worth more than other questions

The entire concept of adaptive testing is that some questions are worth more than others. For the sake of this article, we can imagine that easy questions are worth one point, medium-difficulty questions are worth two points, and hard questions are worth three points. And during your test, you will receive a mix of all three.

When you start the test, the computer test's algorithm will give you one or two medium-difficulty questions. If you get these right, the computer will start giving you harder questions, which are worth more. If you get them wrong, the computer will "adapt," and give you easier questions.

An analogy for adaptive testing would be lifting weights at the gym. Imagine you're working out for the first time with a trainer who doesn't know your level--she might give you a 10-kilo weight to lift. If that's too heavy, she'll give you a lighter one; if it's too light, she'll give you a heavier one. As your trainer continues to work out with you, she learns your ability, and adjusts your workout accordingly. Your test is just the same--as you answer questions, the computer "learns" your level and gives you questions that it decides are at your level.

This approach is designed to make the adaptive test shorter and more accurate than the paper test (which must include a full range of easy, medium, and difficult questions), since the computer doesn't waste time by giving you questions that are either above or below your level.

A side note--many TestMagic students and website visitors have said that the computer questions are harder than the questions on the paper test. This makes sense, if you realize that the test is adaptive--the test keeps giving you questions that are at your level. The paper test cannot do this; on the paper test, you have to answer a bunch of easy, medium, and difficult questions, so some questions will seem easy, others hard. The computer test, on the other hand, should in theory give you questions at your level, which could make the test seem harder than a paper test.

Are the first questions are worth more?

Many books, schools, teachers, and websites are telling their students that the beginning questions are worth more than later questions are. ETS says that this is not true. Erin Billy has tested several versions of the GMAT, GRE, and TOEFL PowerPrep tests and has seen that in some cases, earlier questions are indeed worth more, at least according to the PowerPrep results.

On experiments with the TOEFL test, TestMagic found that answering questions correctly at the beginning of the test does indeed raise your score more.

Letís look at the results of a sample TOEFL PowerPrep that Erin Billy did at TestMagic:

These are the results of two hypothetical test takers, Margaret and Gary, who are taking the TOEFL.

Margaret's Score: 23

Gary's Score: 20

In this simulation, both Margaret and Gary have answered the same number of questions correctly. Margaret answered the first ten correctly, but missed the last ten; Garyís performance was the other way around--he missed the first ten, but got the last ten correct. In the end, Margaret ended up getting three more points than did Gary on the grammar section because her correct answers were at the beginning.

Results from the GMAT PowerPrep

The main trend that I observed from taking a couple dozen PowerPrep tests is that it is easier to raise or lower your score at the beginning than it is at the end. For example, if you get a few questions wrong at the beginning, it is difficult to recover; however, if you get questions wrong at the end, your score doesn't go down as much, if at all. In fact, I've had many students score over 700 without answering the last few questions (but NEVER leave any question blank, even if you're running out of time!).

How do I know what my score is while I'm taking the test? Well, the truth is that there is no way to know for sure, but I am so familiar with the PowerPrep questions that I can estimate the difficulty of the questions as I answer them.

You cannot go back to previous questions

After you answer a question, you CANNOT go back to a previous question. So, make sure that your answer is correct before you continue.

Do NOT leave any questions blank!

Many people ask whether it's okay to leave any questions blank. The answer is an unequivocal NO. Think of the computer test as a paper test--you would never leave any answers blank on a paper test, would you? Well, the same goes for the computer tests--don't leave any blank, even if you have to guess an answer.

Not all questions are adaptive

On the TOEFL, the Reading Comprehension questions are not adaptive--each question is worth the same.

That's it for now. I'll try to add more information as needed.

Any questions? Ask in the TestMagic Forum!

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