Tests as Products

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Consider car manufacturing, and it isn’t hard to believe that many consumer needs result in many car designs. SUVs are purchased for different reasons than sports cars. Growing families buy minivans in order to haul large numbers of children (their own and others’) economically. Students (or their parents) buy compact cars that get great gas mileage, and the money saved helps pay for tuition and books. Luxury cars are purchased as a reward for professional success and to indicate status. Within each class, the varieties seem endless.

A test, like any other manufactured product, also is designed to fit a particular niche. That is, someone decides that the test should look a certain way and do certain things.

Not all tests are designed the same, although it may not seem that way. For example, the test for registered nurses is adaptive. How questions are presented depends on how the nursing candidate answers them. The test takes about 75 minutes, but used to take two full days. The test for Certified Life Underwriters is 14 days long. Some tests use only multiple-choice questions, while others add creative performance components. Cisco, for example, has a rigorous lab-based exam that takes many hours to complete. Microsoft just embedded simulation questions into its exams to make sure candidates can perform certain critical tasks. Just this year, the test for CPAs added a simulation component where candidates have to actually complete accounting tasks.

There are thousands of certification and licensure exams, and they differ from one another. For many programs, the tests have been designed by experts, called “psychometricians,” who are careful to design the tests to accurately measure knowledge and minimize security problems.

Tests serve many other high-stakes purposes. For example, the state assessment is taken as part of the elementary and secondary school experience. These tests are designed by the states’ departments of education (or their contractors) in order to measure the effectiveness of education from the district level down to each classroom and teacher. In general, they aren’t designed to tell much about individual students, although newer exit exams, combined with the No Child Left Behind Act, are used to advance students from one grade to the next. Classroom tests designed by teachers are meant to find out what a student has learned in a class, although they don’t always do a great job.

Some tests are created to measure how much you know. Others measure how much you are capable of learning. The former are achievement tests that measure what you have “achieved.” The latter are aptitude tests that measure your potential. Intelligence or IQ tests fit in this category. For about 100 years, intelligence tests have been used to decide whether school children need to be in special programs. These types of tests also can be used to determine the competence of alleged criminals to stand trial. A special type of aptitude test is an admissions test. For example, the SAT and ACT tests you took as a junior or senior in high school were meant to help colleges decide if you had what it takes to succeed at that level.

From test to test, many characteristics can change, including:



  • Types of questions.
  • Number of questions.
  • How the questions are selected and presented.
  • Number of interchangeable test forms.
  • How the test is scored.
  • The score needed to pass.
  • Whether or not the test is computerized.
  • The test time limit.


Given that you are adults who have completed quite a bit of schooling, you have likely taken tests that vary on any number of these characteristics—probably all of them. And you will continue to take tests, at least certification tests for professional development. If you ever go back to school, you will likely want to take another admissions test. If you have children, you can better understand what is required of them when they take tests, and you can support them better. Understanding tests as products can help you appreciate the differences between tests, why they cost what they do and why they put you through such complicated preparation and anxiety.

Like purchasing any other consumer product, understanding tests in all their varieties can save time, money and frustration.

David Foster, Ph.D., is president of Caveon and is a member of the International Test Commission, as well as several measurement industry boards. He can be reached at dfoster@certmag.com.


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