The Right Test for the Wrong Reason: The Tests We Use to Evaluate Student Achievement May Well Be Sound Measures of What Students Know, but, at Best, They Are Faulty Indicators of How Well They Have Been Taught

By Popham, W. James | Phi Delta Kappan, September 2014 | Go to article overview

The Right Test for the Wrong Reason: The Tests We Use to Evaluate Student Achievement May Well Be Sound Measures of What Students Know, but, at Best, They Are Faulty Indicators of How Well They Have Been Taught


Popham, W. James, Phi Delta Kappan


For almost a full century, the mission of U.S. educational measurement has been to elicit test-takers' scores so those scores can be compared with one another. This is a good and useful thing to do, particularly so in situations where the number of applicants exceeds the number of openings. To make a flock of important educational decisions, we need to identify our strongest and weakest performing students.

The legitimacy of such test-based comparisons was firmly established way back in World War I -almost 100 years ago--when the government administered the Army Alpha intelligence test to about 1.75 million U.S. Army recruits in an effort to identify the most suitable candidates for officer training programs. Using the Alpha to provide comparative score interpretations was regarded as a smashing success and, although the test was clearly a measure of a test-taker's aptitude, the makers of educational achievement tests soon emulated the Alpha's focus on comparative score interpretations. Indeed, a number of the test-construction and test-refinement tactics used for today's achievement tests can be traced back to the comparative assessment procedures associated with the Army Alpha.

But tests capable of providing score comparisons aren't necessarily tests that should be used to evaluate schools or teachers. Such evaluative applications of educational assessment, although similar in some ways to comparative applications of educational assessment, are fundamentally different. However, increasingly America's educators are being evaluated on the basis of their students' performances on tests that were created to yield comparative score interpretations rather than to measure instructional quality. This is a terrible mistake.

This mistake is being made because of an erroneous but pervasive beliefby Americans that schools are responsible for the knowledge and skills students display when responding to achievement tests. In some instances, this is accurate. Instruction in schools is responsible for certain skills and bodies of knowledge that are measured by today's achievement tests.

Yet, what if the tests we traditionally employ to measure students' achievement, because of those tests' preoccupation with providing comparative score interpretations, also measure many things other than what students were taught in school? What if our traditional achievement tests, in an effort to provide the necessary variance in total test scores that are so vital for comparative score interpretations, also measure test-takers' status with respect to such variance-inducing factors as students' socioeconomic status and inherited academic aptitudes? Clearly, such a confounding of causality would make such traditional achievement tests less appropriate for evaluating how well students have been taught. To what extent is a student's performance on a traditional achievement test attributable to what was taught in school rather than what was brought to school? For many of today's achievement tests, we just can't tell.

I contend that the traditional way we build and burnish our educational achievement tests may lead to using those tests inappropriately to evaluate schools and teachers. The italicized may is intended to emphasize my conviction that the suitability of today's traditional achievement tests for evaluative use has not been rigorously scrutinized. But it should be.

If one wishes to evaluate the performance of a school's instructional staff or the performance of a particular teacher, then having evidence about students' performances on almost any sort of achievement test would be better than relying on no achievement evidence at all. Thus, I'd certainly rather use student scores from the tests we now employ for such evaluative purposes than have no data about student achievement. But the choice isn't whether we should try to do evaluations using flawed tests instead of using no tests. Instead, our challenge is to carry out today's increasingly high-stakes evaluations using the most appropriate tests. …

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