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2010 News Releases

Longwood computer science professor helps revise national exam

November 12, 2010

Dr. Jeffery Peden Dr. Jeffery Peden

Dr. Jeffery Peden, associate professor of computer science, is one of five members of the national committee that is revising the ETS Major Field Test for Computer Science.

The committee is composed of computer science professors from across the country who were selected by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the test and revises it every five years in a collaborative effort that involves an extensive process of editing and content review. The committee has been working on the revisions since spring and is close to completing its work.

When the committee met Oct. 22-24 at ETS headquarters in Princeton, N.J., it reviewed the 20 to 30 questions that each member had submitted, created additional questions, made modifications to questions as needed, and finally decided on the 66 multiple-choice questions that will appear on the revised test. The new test will be available either in spring 2011 or spring 2012.

"We had to keep 20 questions from the old test, and we created 46 new questions," Peden said. "Every member was required to submit at least 20 questions. At the recent meeting in Princeton, I created eight additional questions. Among the questions of mine that made it in the test, some were from those questions and some were from original questions, as it was for everybody else."

Computer Science majors at Longwood are required to take the test in the spring of their senior year, though they are not required to post any particular score. It is administered at colleges and universities in which there are five or more computer science majors. At Longwood, which has about 55 computer science majors, the test is given in the Seminar in Computer Science course, taught by Peden.

"The Major Field Test is similar to the GRE but is not as open-ended as the GRE and, unlike the GRE, is not designed to be a predictor of success in graduate school," Peden said. "It is designed to assess the knowledge the students were supposed to acquire in their major. It's an assessment tool, not a predictor tool. The test spans all the sub-fields in computer science and is supposed to be a mix of extremely easy through extremely difficult questions. There's a wide range of question difficulty."

In addition to the meeting in October in Princeton, the committee held two meetings over the computer, after setting up a "virtual connection coupled with a conference call," and committee members also exhanged a "great deal" of emails. "The committee's last duty is to review the final version of the test, and to catch any errors we may have missed, and to make one final judgment of the test," Peden said.

Peden volunteered to serve on the committee. "Then they vetted my credentials," he said. "You have to have the right credentials and be approved by ETS. Each member of the committee has a Ph.D. in computer science and is an active college or university faculty member. One of the members is writing a textbook and another has written a couple of textbooks, and one member is working on cutting-edge research on parallel programming.

"I'm working on research in cryptology, which is the study of encryption methods, and there are three questions, I think, about cryptology on the test. In the current test, there is only one question about cryptology. The field is growing in importance. My dissertation was on how queuing theory, which is the mathematical field that studies waiting in line, is applied to computer networks, and computer networks and cryptology are inextricably linked. There are some elements of each in the other. Over the years, I have drifted from mathematical analysis of computer network behavior into cryptology."

The Educational Testing Service (ETS) administers Major Field Tests in more than a dozen undergraduate fields of study, and it also offers the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Some Major Field Tests are updated every three years, others every five years. They are updated "to maintain their validity, reliability and fairness. This process ensures that the test specifications and content remain current to the pertinent disciplines and changes in teaching methods," says the ETS web site.

The committee was assisted by two ETS staff members. "Their role was to act as experts on the Major Field Test itself," Peden said. "There are many statistical considerations, as well as ETS mandates concerning the test itself and how the test is used by the colleges and universities that administer it."

"I thoroughly enjoyed the entire process, and I would serve on the committee again," said Peden. "You can serve more than once. In fact, the chair this time was on the last committee. For Longwood to be represented on this committee is recognition that we have an excellent computer science program."

The current Major Field Test in Computer Science was given to 217 colleges and universities throughout the United States between February 2006 and June 2010, according to a listing on the ETS web site. In addition to Longwood, it was given at seven other public and two private institutions in Virginia. A modified version of the exam is used in Europe, Peden said.

Several years ago, Peden developed a "fake" Major Field Test and, after contacting ETS to see if it was OK, he began giving that test to students in his Seminar in Computer Science course, often called the Senior Seminar. "I already knew I enjoyed working on a test like that, and I already had some experience coming up with questions. So, when I heard about this, I jumped on it."

Peden joined the Longwood faculty in 1991. The results of his dissertation research, which was funded by NASA, was used by NASA in the design of the computer network on the International Space Station. "My research area is cryptology/cryptography/computer networking, and I am currently developing a class of completely new and markedly different encryption methods," he said.