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Standardized test

Originally a standardized test was simply a standard test of academic achievement or of knowledge in a specific academic or vocational domain. It has since acquired the meaning of a written test whose scores are interpreted by reference to the scores of a norm group which has taken the test and which is usually considered to be representative of the population which takes the test. For example, standardized tests of academic achievement provide conversion tables showing the percentile ranks in the norm group of all possible raw scores. Some standardized tests are now analyzed with item response theory.

Criticisms of standardized tests

Standardized tests are widely used in education, placement, and certification. Their validity has been criticized on several grounds, however.

Some of the criticisms are standard psychometric ones. For example, scores on tests of achievement in mathematics problem-solving are often correlated with scores on tests of language ability; this suggests that the mathematics test is actually measuring the linguistic ability required to understand the presentation of the problems rather than the mathematical ability required to solve them. Educational tests also tend to become outdated as curriculum changes.

Standardized tests are also widely criticized as culturally inappropriate for many groups, both in content and in process. It is argued, for example, that in some cultures parents routinely reward children for answering unsolicited questions about the world, and that these children therefore have an advantage on tests of academic achievement. Criticism of content usually centres on the differing relevance of the content to people from different cultures for example, newly arrived immigrants can be expected to have greater difficulty with an intelligence test which asks them to name past leaders of the country to which they have recently immigrated.

Attempts have been made to develop culture-free and culture-fair (culture-neutral) tests of intelligence, but on the whole these attempts have not been successful. Conceptions of intelligence vary widely from culture to culture, and abstracting the few common elements, or what appear to be the few common elements, cannot be depended on to produce a reliable guide to intelligence. Furthermore, even if the content of a test can be made culture-free or fair to all cultures, culture will still affect the results through attitudes towards tests, test-taking, competition, and so on.

A common criticism of standardized testing programs in schools is that they encourage teachers to "teach to the test." That is, teachers concentrate on the parts of the curriculum they know will be covered on the test and neglect those that will not. This criticism is certainly worth considering if teachers have foreknowledge of the test and the test is not comprehensive. However, if enough alternative forms of the test are provided, if teachers do not know which form will be used, and if the forms provide a comprehensive sampling of the curriculum, this danger would probably be avoided. Despite the obvious danger posed by teaching to the test, though, little research has investigated the prevalence of the phenomenon, or its effects.

A related criticism is that students whose teachers train them in test-taking skills unrelated to content will perform better than equally accomplished students whose teachers do not. Some simple test-taking skills can improve scores on multiple-choice standardized tests, so this criticism points to a real danger, especially if standardized tests are used (incorrectly) as the sole measures of achievement or skill. However, little research has investigated the prevalence or effects of this training.

Large-scale attempts have been made to substitute performance testing[?] or "authentic" testing for standardized testing. Performance tests require actual performance of a skill; for example, instead of answering questions about a science experiment a student would be required to perform it. However, performance tests have poor reliability simply because they accumulate so little data. Standardized tests have been found to predict scores on performance tests better than other performance tests do.

Much of the opposition to standardized tests has centred on the incorrect use of these tests. In particular, the use of standardized tests of academic achievement to assess individual students is questionable, given the tests' reliability they are simply not accurate enough to provide adequate assessments of individual students by themselves.

Perhaps the most important criticism of standardized testing is that many standardized tests fail to meet the standards of their own field. For example, tests of adult literacy are widely used although there is little evidence that they assess literacy accurately.

Advantages of standardized tests

A well designed standardized test provides an assessment of an individual's mastery of a domain of knowledge or skill which at some level of aggregation will provide useful information. While standardized tests are often criticized as unfair, the psychometric standards applied in the development of standardized tests would produce fairer testing if applied in other types of testing. In particular, the effectiveness of each test item in accomplishing the goal of the test would have to be demonstrated.

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