Posted by Austin Fossey
Do you trust the results of your test? Like many questions in psychometrics, the answer is that it depends. Like the trust between two people, trustworthy assessment results have to be earned by the testing body.
Many of us want to implicitly trust the testing body, be it a certification organization, a department of education, or our HR department. When I fill a car with gas, I don’t want to have to siphon the gas out to make sure the amount of gas matches the volume on the pump—I just assume it’s accurate. We put the same faith in our testing bodies.
Just as gas pumps are certified and periodically calibrated, many high-stakes assessment programs are also reviewed. In the U.S., state testing programs are reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education, peer review groups, and technical advisory boards. Certification and licensure programs are sometimes reviewed by third-party accreditation programs, though these accreditations usually only look to see that certain requirements are met without evaluating how well they were executed.
In her op-ed, Can We Trust Assessment Results?, Eva Baker argues that the trustworthiness of assessment results is dependent on the transparency of the testing program. I agree with her. Participants should be able to easily get information on the purpose of the assessment, the content that is covered, and how the assessment was developed. Baker also adds that appropriate validity studies should be conducted and shared. I was especially pleased to see Baker propose that “good transparency occurs when test content can be clearly summarized without giving away the specific questions.”
For test results to be trustworthy, transparency also needs to extend beyond the development of the assessment to include its maintenance. Participants and other stakeholders should have confidence that the testing body is monitoring its assessments, and that a plan is in place should their results become compromised.
In their article, Cheating: Its Implications for ABFM Examinees, Kenneth Royal and James Puffer discuss cases where widespread cheating affects the statistics of the assessment, which in turn mislead test developers by making items appear easier. The effect can be an assessment that yields invalid results. Though specific security measures should be kept confidential, testing bodies should have a public-facing security plan that explains their policies for addressing improprieties. This plan should address policies for the participants as well as for how the testing body will handle test design decisions that have been impacted by compromised results.
Even under ideal circumstances, mistakes can happen. Readers may recall that, in 2006, thousands of students received incorrect scores on the SAT, arguably one of the best-developed and carefully scrutinized assessments in U.S. education. The College Board (the testing body that runs the SAT) handled the situation as well as they could, publicly sharing the impact of the issue, the reasons it happened, and their policies for how they would handle the incorrect results. Others will feel differently, but I trust SAT scores more now that I have observed how the College Board communicated and rectified the mistake.
Most testing programs are well-run, professional operations backed by qualified teams of test developers, but there are the occasional junk testing programs such as predatory certificate programs, that yield useless, untrustworthy results. It can be difficult to tell the difference, but like Eva Baker, I believe that organizational transparency is the right way for a testing body to earn the trust of its stakeholders.