Achievement Tests Essay

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Achievement tests are used to assess the current knowledge and skills of the person being examined. Achievement tests include those administered to students in elementary or secondary schools and those administered to candidates for certification or licensure in a professional field. In elementary and secondary schools, content areas assessed by achievement tests include reading, language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. Licensure and certification examinations include test items that assess the knowledge, skills, and abilities that are required for professional practice. For example, a teacher licensure examination might include items on child development, curriculum, instructional methods, and assessment.

This entry describes achievement tests of various types and how they are developed, describes their uses, and provides some guidelines for selection of specific tests.

Test Formats

The most common item format used in achievement tests is multiple choice. Other item formats used in achievement tests are constructed-response items that require examinees to write a short response and extended-response items that require lengthier responses, such as essays. Also, the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards incorporates a portfolio as one component of its examination used to certify teachers as being “accomplished.”

A majority of achievement tests are group administered. Some achievement tests, however, are individually administered. An example is the Woodcock Johnson-III Tests of Achievement, which assesses examinees’ knowledge in language and mathematics skills. Also, some achievement tests are administered by computer. The Measures of Academic Progress produced by the Northwest Evaluation Association is a computer-adaptive test of reading, mathematics, and science that is used by school districts throughout the United States. An example of an Internet-based assessment is the South Carolina Arts Assessment Program in the visual and performing arts, which is administered to fourth-grade students.

Typically licensure and certification tests are national in focus, whereas, most achievement tests in primary and secondary schools are administered at the school district or state level. However, a nationwide achievement test administered in the United States is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which administers tests in such areas as reading, writing, mathematics, and science, to a national sample of students in Grades 4, 8, and 12. An example of an achievement test administered internationally is the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, a literacy test administered in thirty-five countries or regions.

Types Of Scores

Interpretations of scores from achievement tests are typically norm referenced or criterion referenced. Norm-referenced scores allow the comparison of a local examinee’s performance to a group of peers from across the nation. To achieve this, during test development, a test company recruits a group of examinees from across the nation to take the newly developed achievement test. These examinees are referred to as a norm group. The achievement tests are administered

and scored, and the scores of the members of the norm group are converted to percentiles. A percentile rank indicates the percentage of the norm-group members scoring at or below a test score. The percentile scale ranges from 1 to 99, with the fiftieth percentile being considered average.

When a local examinee takes the test, his or her test score is compared to the scores of the norm group to determine the percentage of the norm group who scored at or below the local examinee’s score. A local examinee scoring at, for example, the sixteenth percentile scored below average as compared to the norm group; whereas a local examinee scoring at the eighty-fifth percentile scored well above average. Given that a local examinee’s performance is being compared to members of a norm group, if the percentile ranks are to be meaningful, then the norm group should be similar to local examinees in terms of demographics.

Criterion-referenced interpretations compare an examinee’s score to some benchmark or performance level. In the case of high school exit examinations, licensure tests, and certification examinations, criterion referenced scores typically indicate whether an examinee’s score is pass/fail or mastery/nonmastery. At the elementary and middle school levels, states often use criterion-referenced scores that indicate a student’s performance level (e.g., Advanced, Proficient, Basic, Below Basic).

Development Of An Achievement Test

The process of developing an achievement test begins with an expert committee that identifies the important content in a field. In education, for state-level tests the committee reviews the subject-matter content standards developed by the state education department. For commercial, national, and international achievement tests, panels of experts review standards developed by national organizations (e.g., the International Reading Association) and the standards, curriculum documents, and texts used in a district, state, or region for which the test is being developed. In licensure and certification, the credentialing body completes a study to identify the knowledge, skills, and abilities critical to professionals in the conduct of their duties. Experts then determine what the test should include.

Based on the review, the test company or agency prepares a test blueprint that details the skills and content of the achievement test as well as the proportion of items devoted to each content area. Test personnel work with experts in the subject area or the professional field to draft test items. Subsequently, various expert committees review the items for appropriateness, clarity, and lack of bias. After the review, the developers field test the items by administering them to a sample of examinees. When the items are returned, protocols for scoring the items (e.g., multiple-choice and constructed-response) are established. After scoring, statistical analyses of field test items are completed in order to examine item quality.

The test blueprint is then used to assemble final test forms using the items that passed quality control. If the achievement test is a norm-referenced test, then the final forms of the test are administered to ageor grade-appropriate norm groups. If the test will provide criterion-referenced scores, then panels of experts review the test items to establish the scores required for passing or classification at a certain performance level. At the end of this process, the developers publish the test and a test manual that provides technical information.

Uses Of Achievement Tests

A common use for achievement tests is for monitoring student progress across years. Achievement tests also are used to make high stakes decisions about examinees, such as testing for licensure or testing for placement into a gifted program or a special education program. Another purpose of achievement tests is to compare the performance of examinees within a school setting or in educational programs. As an example, achievement tests are used in some program evaluations to determine the effectiveness of an instructional technique.

Achievement tests are also used for accountability purposes to inform the public about how well examinees are performing. In education, state testing programs, as well as the federal testing program NAEP, classify students into performance levels based on the degree of achievement the student has demonstrated in regard to either state or national standards. By reporting the percent of students who are classified into each performance level, achievement tests are used to inform policy makers and the public of the status of education. With the federal No Child Left Behind legislation (NCLB, Public Law 107-110), the use of criterion-referenced tests for policy-making purposes increased.

How To Select An Achievement Test

In education, school districts and states sometimes select a commercially produced test rather than develop a test. In selecting such an achievement test, decision makers should review the test to determine the degree to which the test content is appropriate for their curriculum. Selection of a standardized test should consider relevance of the test items; the recency and representativeness of the norms; the conorming of the achievement test with an aptitude test; the testing time required; the ease of administration; the articulation of the test across grade levels; and the costs of test materials, scoring, and score reports. In adopting an achievement test, users should also review potential test items to assure they do not promote racial or gender stereotypes.

The test user should also determine if the score of the examinee is reliable over time. Reliability is concerned with the question, “If the examinee were to retake the examination (or an examination with parallel content), would he or she be likely to receive the same score?” In determining if a test is reliable, the test user will also want to determine the error (i.e., unreliability) that is associated with a test score.

Finally, in selecting an achievement test, users should determine if the test has been validated for the intended use. To that end, test users should investigate what types of validity evidence are provided to support the interpretation of the test scores for a particular use. For example, information should be provided to the test user regarding the content that is being tested and how that content is related to the construct of interest.


  1. Haladyna, T. (2002). Essentials of standardized achievement testing: Validity and accountability. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  2. Hopkins, K. (1998). Educational and psychological measurement and evaluation (8th ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  3. South Carolina Arts Assessment Program. (2002). Sample tests. Retrieved from
  4. Thorndike, R. (2005). Measurement and evaluation in psychology and education (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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