5 Steps to Developing Fair and Accurate Tests

This is the first in a series of stories helping parents understand how their child’s assessments unfold before, during, and after the test. Other stories in this series include: more information about how Pearson ensures online security and technical proficiency as well as a video about how Pearson conducts its tests.


Pop Quiz

What do you think is the first step in test development?

Field Tests

A. Field tests to make sure everything is working properly.

States Outline

B. States adopt benchmarks for what students should know.

Question Development

C. “Item” or test question development.

Set up performance standards

D. Setting performance standards.

Build the test

E. Building the test itself.

States Outline

If you answered B, you are correct!

Every test starts first at the state level where legislators and officials outline what every student should know by the end of the year.

Creating the Test

With assessment season under way, you might be wondering just what it takes to create a test. Well, we have the answer and it’s in five easy-to-understand steps:

States Outline

Step 1: States outline academic standards.

This is where it all begins.

States and/or groups of states outline what students should know and be able to do. Known as academic standards, these benchmarks not only determine what a state wants its students to know by the end of the school year—they also set the foundation for instruction in the classroom and the assessment itself.

Once the academic standards are set, the state determines which testing partner they’d like to provide the tests for their communities. This is where Pearson may come in.

Question DevelopmentStep 2: “Item” or test question development.

Pearson experts team up with former or current teachers, professors, Ph.D. professionals and the group puts its experience and knowledge of the subject matter to the test—literally—to create “items.” Items can be multiple-choice questions, interactive technology items, essay prompts, tasks, situation examples, or activities. And each one of them is geared to a state standard.

Typically, these external experts draft the initial versions of test items, then Pearson experts shepherd the items through a rigorous development process.

Once the questions are developed, teachers, content experts, higher education faculty and state education leaders review them to ensure the tests are fair, reliable and accurate. It is not uncommon during this review stage that some questions are thrown out.

Field TestsStep 3: Field tests or “trials.”

Now it’s time for a test run to ensure each question is fair for all.

Field tests are a part of the process that enables Pearson along with state partners to test items—not the kids. We are testing to see that the questions are worthy of being used to assess skills and knowledge appropriately.

Students’ scores on field-tests are only used to evaluate the questions—and give all students a level playing field. They are in no way used to calculate a student’s score for the year.

During a field test, we can also see if gender, ethnicity or even English proficiency have an impact on a child’s ability to successfully perform the task at hand. All of this is done to verify that each and every question is fair.

A group of teachers and education experts are involved in reviewing the results and making decisions along the way.

Quite simply put, this stage helps us assess if an item meets expectations or not. If it doesn’t, it’s cut.

Build the testStep 4: Build the test.

Once the questions are determined to be fair, free of bias, and that they’re assessing what they are intended to asses, the test is put into its final form in print or digitally.

Easier questions are mixed with more challenging questions. This variety and mix of content helps us understand what a child really knows at the end of the assessment.

Set up performance standardsStep 5: Setting performance standards.

In the final step, states and their educators, with expert statistical information provided by Pearson, make decisions about how well students must perform to pass or be proficient on assessments.

Performance can be defined in many ways, but these “performance standards” provide a frame of reference for interpreting the test scores. This feedback can help students, parents, educators, administrators, and policymakers understand how well a student did by using a category rating.

That’s how it’s done.

There is a lot of time (sometimes even years) to make sure this rigorous process is followed closely—all to ensure that tests and assessments are fair and accurate before getting to your kids hands.


Our series on assessments:

Part 1: 5 Steps to Developing Fair and Accurate Tests

Part II: Behind the Scenes of Your Child’s Assessment: How Pearson Keeps the Test Running Smoothly

Part III: Assessment Series Part III: A video explainer of how Pearson does its assessments.