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Achievement Tests

Standardized tests, administered to groups of students, intended to measure how well they have learned information in various academic subjects.

Spelling tests, timed arithmetic tests, and map quizzes are all examples of achievement tests. Each measures how well students can demonstrate their knowledge of a particular academic subject or skill. Achievement tests on a small scale like these are administered frequently in schools. Less frequently, students are given more inclusive achievement tests that cover a broader spectrum of information and skills. For instance, many states now require acceptable scores on "proficiency" tests at various grade levels before advancement is allowed. Admission to colleges and graduate studies depends on achievement tests such as the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), which attempts to measure both aptitude and achievement, the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), and the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). The Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) and the California Achievement Test (CAT) are examples of achievement tests given to many elementary school students around the United States.

Useful achievement tests must be both reliable and valid. Reliable tests are consistent and reproducible. That is, a student taking a similar test, or the same test at a different time, must respond with a similar performance. Valid tests measure achievement on the subject they are intended to measure. For example, a test intended to measure achievement in arithmetic—but filled with difficult vocabulary—may not measure arithmetic achievement at all. The students who score well on such a test may be those who have good vocabularies or above-average reading ability in addition to appropriate arithmetic skills. Students who fail may have achieved the same arithmetic skills, but did not know how to demonstrate them. Such tests would not be considered valid. In order for reliable comparisons to be made, all standardized tests, including achievement tests, must be given under similar conditions and with similar time limitations and scoring procedures. The difficulty of maintaining consistency in these administration procedures makes the reliability of such tests questionable, critics contend.

Many researchers point to another problem with achievement tests. Because it is difficult to distinguish in test form the difference between aptitude—innate ability—and achievement—learned knowledge or skills—the results of tests that purport to measure achievement alone are necessarily invalid to some degree. Also, some children attain knowledge through their experiences, which may assist them in tests of academic achievement. The presence of cultural biases in achievement tests is a frequent topic of discussion among educators, psychologists, and the public at large. Political pressure to produce high scores and the linking of achievement to public funds for schools have also become part of the achievement-test controversy.

Yet further skepticism about achievement test results comes from critics who contend that teachers frequently plan their lessons and teaching techniques to foster success on such tests. This "teaching to the test" technique used by some teachers makes comparisons with other curricula difficult; thus, test scores resulting from the different methods become questionable as well. Test anxiety may also create unreliable results. Students who experience excessive anxiety when taking tests may perform below their level of achievement. For them, achievement tests may prove little more than their aversion to test-taking.

Further Reading

Houts, Paul L., ed. The Myth of Measurability. New York: Hart Publishing Co., 1977.

Wallace, Betty, and William Graves. Poisoned Apple: The Bell-Curve Crisis and How Schools Create Mediocrity and Failure. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Tests & Methods