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Educational Testing Service Sues Exam-Coaching Firm : Courts: Suit charges that questions on computerized test were stolen by company that revealed its weaknesses.

January 01, 1995|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just a few weeks after suspending its computerized version of graduate school admission tests, the Educational Testing Service has filed a federal lawsuit against the company that revealed the program's vulnerability to cheating.

ETS, which administers the Graduate Record Examination taken by graduate school applicants, charges that a New York-based test preparation firm broke the law when it set out to prove the fallibility of the computerized test by having employees memorize questions and reconstruct much of the exam.

"We think we have to demonstrate that we're not going to sit idly by and let people steal our questions," said Nancy S. Cole, president of ETS, which filed the U.S. District Court lawsuit against Kaplan Educational Centers, a firm that coaches students preparing for the admission tests. The action, filed Friday in Maryland, cites the federal electronic communication privacy act and copyright laws, and accuses the firm of breach of contract and fraud.

Referring to Kaplan's motives, Cole said: "It's my belief they did it for the publicity and for their commercial gain and to intentionally damage computer-based testing." Kaplan officials could not be reached for comment Saturday.

Last month, Kaplan officials said they sent employees to take the computerized GRE tests after some of their clients indicated that exam questions were being reused.

By compiling the questions memorized by about 20 employees, Kaplan was able to piece together about 70% of the test.

Kaplan, which says it did not disseminate any of the questions, informed ETS of its experiment. ETS temporarily suspended the computer tests, but is resuming them this week.

Cole maintained Saturday that Kaplan is trying to undermine computerized testing because it hurts the company's business.

Although paper-and-pencil versions of the GRE exams are administered only a few times a year--thus allowing test preparation firms to hold large, profitable classes--the computer tests have been available several days a week. That, Cole said, requires coaching firms to teach smaller groups of students at a time and invest in computer equipment.

The majority of graduate school applicants take the paper version of the GRE, but the computerized version is increasingly popular. With the computerized version, Cole said, students have more choices of when to take the test, immediately get their scores and can take the exams in a more comfortable, small-scale setting.

It is precisely the ease of scheduling that led to the problems uncovered by Kaplan. The computer tests were given too often to use entirely different sets of questions on each one, as is the case with the paper exams administered only four times a year.

To reduce inclusion of the same questions, Cole said, the computerized tests will be offered less often this spring and more questions will be added to the mix.

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