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In education, certification, counseling, and many other fields, a test or an exam (short for examination) is a tool or technique intended to measure students' expression of knowledge, skills and/or abilities. A test has more questions of greater difficulty and requires more time for completion than a quiz. It is usually divided into two or more sections, each covering a different area of the domain or taking a different approach to assessing the same aspects.

A standardized test is one that compares the performance of every individual subject with a norm or criterion. The norm may be established independently, or by statistical analysis of a large number of subjects.

Types of questionsEdit

Multiple-choice questionsEdit

For a multiple-choice question, the author of the test provides several possible answers (usually four or five) from which the test subjects must choose. There is one right answer, usually represented by only one answer option, though sometimes divided into two or more, all of which subjects must identify correctly. Such a question may look like this:

  The number of right angles in a square is:
    a) 2    b) 3    c) 4    d) 5

Test authors generally create incorrect response options, often referred to as distracters, which correspond with likely errors. For example, distracters may represent common misconceptions that occur during the developmental process. The construction of effective distracters is a key challenge that must be faced in order to construct multiple-choice items that possess strong psychometric properties. Well-designed distracters, considered in combination, can attract considerably more than 25% of the weakest students, so reducing the effects of guessing on total scores. The construction of such items may in some cases require some skill and experience on the part of the item developer.


Figure 1: Multiple choice distracter analysis with Item Characteristic Curve

A graph showing the functioning of a multiple-choice question is shown in Figure 1. The x-axis represents an ability continuum and the y-axis the probability of any given choice. The grey line maps ability to the probability of a correct response according to the Rasch model, which is a psychometric model used to analyse test data. The correct response in the example shown in Figure 1 is E. The proportion of students along the ability continuum who chose the correct response is highlighted in pink. The graph shows the proportion of students opting for other choices along the range of the ability continuum, as shown in the legend. The proportion of students at about -1.5 on the scale who responded correctly to this item is approximately 0.1, which is below the proportion expected if students were purely guessing.

An attractive feature of multiple-choice questions is that they are particularly easy to score. Machines such as the Scantron and software grading of computer-based tests can be performed automatically and instantly, which is particularly valuable for situations where there aren't enough graders available to grade a large class or large-scale standardized test.

This format is not, however, appropriate for assessing all types of skills and abilities. Poorly written multiple-choice questions often create an overemphasis on simple memorization and deemphasize processes and comprehension, and they leave no room for disagreement or alternate interpretation, making them particularly unsuitable for humanities such as literature and philosophy.

Free-response questionsEdit


Students taking a test at the University of Vienna, June 2005

Free-response questions (also known as extended constructed responses) generally require subjects to produce written responses. The length of the written response may be as short as a single word or mathematical expression, in which case the question acquires some of the characteristics of the multiple-choice type. However, at higher levels of education, this type of question usually requires deeper, more analytical thinking. The most difficult free-response questions may involve an essay or original composition of a page or more in length, or a scientific proof or solution requiring over an hour.

Free-response questions do not pose as much of a challenge to the test author, but evaluating the responses is a different matter. Effective scoring involves reading the answer carefully and looking for specific features, such as clarity and logic, which the item is designed to assess. Often, the best results are achieved by awarding scores according to explicit ordered categories which reflect an increasing quality of response. Doing so may involve the construction of marking criteria and support materials, such as training materials for markers and samples of work which exemplify categories of responses. Typically, these questions are scored according to a uniform grading rubric for greater consistency and reliability.

At the other end of the spectrum, scores may be awarded according to superficial qualities of the response, such as the presence of certain important terms. In this case, it is easy for test subjects to fool scorers by writing a stream of generalizations, non sequiturs that incorporates the terms that the scorers are looking for.

Practical examinationEdit

Knowledge of how to do something does not lend itself well to either free-response or multiple-choice questions. It may be demonstrated only outright. Art, music, and language fall into this category, as do non-academic disciplines such as sports and driving. Students of engineering are often required to present an original design or computer program developed over the course of days or even months.

A practical examination may be administered by an examiner in person (in which case it may be called an audition or a tryout) or by means of an audio or video recording. It may be administered on its own or in combination with other types of questions; for instance, many driving tests in the United States include a practical examination as well as a multiple-choice section regarding traffic laws.

Tests of the sciences may include laboratory experiments (practicals/laboratory sessions) to make sure that the student has learned not only the body of knowledge comprising the science but also the experimental methods through which it has been developed. Again, the use of explicit criteria is generally beneficial in the marking of practical examinations or performances.

Limitations of testing and associated issuesEdit

General aptitude tests are used in certain countries as a basis for entrance into colleges and universities. An issue associated with the use of these tests is that they are known to be subject to practice effects, and do not assess the accumulated learning of students during their schooling years. As a consequence, the SAT have been renamed from the Scholastic Aptitude Test to the Scholastic Assessment Test. Some evidence indicates that SAT scores of 11th and 12th graders do not correlate highly with freshman year grades and correlate poorly with overall undergraduate ranking — this has caused pressure for ETS to re-evaluate their exams before universities start requiring applicants to provide exam scores for ACT, an exam which also does not correlate very well with freshmen GPA but does correlate better than the SAT. Reasons for poor correlation are as follows:

  • Questions on the exam may be improperly weighting the types of problems encountered within the environment the exam intends to predict. An example of improperly weighting would be for an exam to have the ratio of questions in geometry, calculus, and number theory dissimilar to the ratio of these questions present in the environment for which the exam is intended to serve as a predictor of future performance. More egregiously, a mathematics exam may ask solely about the names, birthdates, and country of origin of various mathematicians when such knowledge is of little importance in a mathematics curriculum.
  • People are variously susceptible to stress. Some are virtually unaffected, and excel on tests, while in extreme cases, individuals can become very nervous and forget large components of exam material. To counterbalance this, often teachers and professors don't grade their students on tests alone, placing considerable weight on homework, attendance, in-class discussion activity, and laboratory investigations (where applicable).
  • Through specialized training on material and techniques specifically created to suit the test, students can be "coached" to "game" the test, significantly raising their scores without actually significantly increasing their general intelligence or knowledge.
  • Although test organizers attempt to prevent it and impose strict penalties for it, academic dishonesty (cheating) can be used to obtain an advantage over other test-takers. On a multiple-choice test, lists of answers may be obtained beforehand. On a free-response test, the questions may be obtained beforehand, or the subject may write an answer that creates the illusion of knowledge.

Despite such issues, tests are less susceptible to cheating than other tools of learning evaluation. Laboratory results can be fabricated, and homework can be done by one student and copied by rote by others. The presence of a responsible test administrator, in a controlled environment, helps to guard against cheating.

Additionally, in some cases, high-stakes testing induces examinees to rise to meet the exam's high expectations. Generally, the term high-stakes is reserved for tests that are used as a basis for competitive entry into future courses, including tests which are highly weighted within selection criteria that are used for entrance into university courses.

The SAT and other high-stakes examsEdit

In the United States and other countries, tests based primarily on multiple-choice questions have come to be used for assessments of great importance, with consequences including the funding levels of public schools and the admission of students to institutions of higher education. The most important such test in the U.S. is the SAT, which consists almost entirely of multiple-choice questions (though some of these are specifically designed to inherent inaccuracies of that question type). Originally developed as a test of a student's intrinsic intelligence, its methodology has proven vulnerable to specialized test-preparation programs that improve the subject's score. The SAT is written and administered by the College Board. For this reason, certain commentators have suggested that high stakes testing should be based more on content learned during the schooling years. Difficulties arise with respect to comparability across different schools, sectors, states and so on. A key challenge is to balance the need for comparability with the need to assess the skills, knowledge and abilities students have developed during the schooling years.

The SAT has also been criticized for an alleged racial bias; ethnic minorities supposedly fare worse on the exam than they should. As a result, it began to fall out of favor in the late 1990s, with increasing emphasis on standardized tests that measure actual knowledge. Some of these replacements have likewise come from the College Board, but many states have taken the initiative to design tests of their own. The ACT examination, introduced in 1959 as a competitor to the SAT, also features more knowledge-based questions, and is accepted as an alternative to the SAT for admission to many United States colleges. Many colleges are also placing more emphasis on measures of long-term performance such as the high-school grade point average, the difficulty of classes taken in high school, and teacher letters of recommendation.

There are also other high-stakes exams at higher educational levels, like; Fundamentals of Engineering exam administered by National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES).

See alsoEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Airasian, P. (1994) "Classroom Assessment," Second Edition, NY" McGraw-Hill.
  • Cangelosi, J. (1990) "Designing Tests for Evaluating Student Achievement." NY: Addison-Wesley.
  • Grunlund, N (1993) "How to make achievement tests and assessments," 5th edition, NY: Allyn and Bacon.
  • Haladyna, T.M. & Downing, S.M. (1989) Validity of a Taxonomy of Multiple-Choice Item-Writing Rules. "Applied Measurement in Education," 2(1), 51-78.
  • Monahan, T. (1998) The Rise of Standardized Educational Testing in the U.S. – A Bibliographic Overview.
  • Wilson, N. (1997) Educsational standards and the problem of error. Tap into archives, vol6. No10

International exams (internal)Edit

External linksEdit

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