Test (student assessment)

In education, certification, counselling, and many other fields, a test or 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. The norm may be established independently, or by statistical analysis of a large number of subjects. The study of exams is called psychometrics.

Table of contents
1 Types of questions
2 The flaws and politics of high-stakes testing

Types of questions

Multiple-choice questions

For a multiple-choice question, the author of the test provides several possible answers (usually four or five) from which the test subject must choose. There is only one right answer, usually respresented by only one answer option, though sometimes divided into two or more, all of which the subject must identify correctly. Such a question may look like this:
  The number of planets in the solar system is:
   a) 7    b) 8    c) 9    d) 10
If a subject makes an error and produces an answer that is not an option, the subject will see that he or she is wrong. As a result, he or she will probably continue working until an allowable answer is achieved. If the subject fails to produce an allowable answer after an inordinate amount of time, he will probably suffer from dramatically increased anxiety, leading to a cascade of further errors not representative of his actual level of knowledge.

To prevent this phenomenon, the test author should create the incorrect answer options so that they correspond to the likeliest subject errors. This process is very problematic, and only the best teachers are able to do it well. As a result, proper multiple-choice questions requiring more than a little thought are extremely difficult to write. This question type is used primarily for testing factual knowledge.

On the other hand, multiple-choice questions are remarkably easy to score. They have proliferated in recent years, due to the development of machines that can score large numbers of them with minimal human effort.

Free-response questions

Free-response questions require the subject to write. 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 story. Scoring may be done according to superficial qualities of the response, such as the presence of certain important terms. In this case, it is easy for the test subject to fool the scorer by writing a stream of generalizations, non sequiturs and sheer nonsense that incorporates the terms that the scorer is looking for. Proper scoring involves reading the answer carefully and looking for clarity and logic. If one scorer must score a large number of tests, this becomes very tiresome, especially since he or she usually knows the material at a much higher level than that expected of the subject.

Practical examination

Knowledge of how to do something does not lend itself well to either free-response or multiple-choice questions. It may only be demonstrated 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 natural sciences may include laboratory experiments (practica) 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.

The flaws and politics of high-stakes testing

One criticism of exams is people are variously susceptible to stress. Some are virtually unaffected, and excel on tests, while others become very nervous and forget entire tracts of exam material. To compensate for this, teachers and professors seldom grade their students on tests alone, placing considerable weight on homework, attendance and in-class discussion activity, and laboratory investigations (where applicable). Large-scale standardized tests can usually be taken more than once; individuals who make decisions based on standardized-test scores generally consider a student's best score to be the truest one.

Another concern is academic dishonesty (cheating). Students have created a formidable arsenal of strategies to garner test scores that do not represent their actual level of knowledge. 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. Cheating makes tests unreliable at best, and absolutely useless at worst.

In their defense, 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, ensures that those who cheat on tests have at least some chance of being discovered and punished.

The SAT and other high-stakes exams

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 highly vulnerable to specialized test-preparation programs that dramatically improve the subject's score. The SAT is written and administered by the College Board.

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.

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