4 Ways To Improve Exam Content Validity

Featured image of student on computer in lab taking assessment that ensures exam validity

Whether you are an educator or an employer, ensuring you are measuring and testing for the right skills and achievements in an ethical, accurate, and meaningful way is crucial. If you want to make sure your students are knowledgeable and prepared, or if you want to make sure a potential employee or staff member is capable of performing specific tasks, you have to provide them with the right exam or assessment content.

For an exam or an assessment to accurately fulfill its purpose without bias, it needs to measure what it is supposed to measure objectively. In other words, your tests need to be valid and reliable.

What Is Exam Validity?

Assessment validity informs the accuracy and reliability of the exam results. In order to be able to confidently and ethically use results, you must ensure the validity and reliability of the exam.

Validity means that a test is measuring what it is supposed to be measuring and does not include questions that are biased, unethical, or irrelevant. Validity is specifically related to the content of the test and what it is designed to measure. 

Reliability, however, is concerned with how consistent a test is in producing stable results. For example, if a group of students takes a test to measure digital literacy and the results show mastery but they test again and fail, then there might be inconsistencies in the test questions. The assessment is producing unreliable results. In other words, your test results should be replicable and consistent, meaning you should be able to test a group or a person twice and achieve the same or close to the same results.

Four Ways To Improve Assessment Validity and Reliability

Luckily, there are ways to design test content to ensure it is accurate, valid, and reliable. Keep in mind these core components as you move along into the four key steps:

  • Content validity — know what you want to measure and ensure the test doesn’t stray from this; 
  • Criteria validity — assess how well your test measures the content;
  • Construct validity — check that the test is actually measuring the right content or if it is measuring something else;
  • Reliability — make sure the test is replicable and can achieve consistent results if the same group or person were to test again within a short period of time.

The tips below can help guide you as you create your exams or assessments to ensure they have valid and reliable content.

1. Identify the Test Purpose by Setting SMART Goals 

Before you start developing questions for your test, you need to clearly define the purpose and goals of the exam or assessment. You can do so by establishing SMART goals. SMART stands for:

  • Specific;
  • Measurable;
  • Achievable;
  • Relevant;
  • Time-bound.

As you can tell, SMART goals include some of the key components of test validity: measurability and relevancy. If you create SMART test goals that include measurable and relevant results, this will help ensure that your test results will be able to be replicated. This will guide you when creating the test questions.

Along the way, you may find that the questions you come up with are not valid or reliable. You can differentiate these questions by harkening back to your SMART goals. This includes identifying the specifics of the test and what you want to measure, such as the content or criteria. 

Keep in mind whom the test is for and how they may perceive certain languages. Also, delegate how many questions you want to include or how long you want the test to be in order to achieve the most accurate results without overwhelming the respondents. By establishing these things ahead of time and clearly defining your goals, you can create a more valid test.

2. Measure the Right Skills

When designing a new test, it’s also important to make sure you know what skills or capabilities you need to test for depending on the situation. For example, if you are teaching a computer literacy class, you want to make sure your exam has the right questions that determine whether or not your students have learned the skills they will need to be considered digitally literate.

Or, if you are hiring someone for a management position in IT, you need to make sure they have the right hard and soft skills for the job. Your assessment needs to have questions that accurately test for skills beyond the core requirements of the role. Include some questions that assess communication skills, empathy, and self-discipline. Similarly, if you are an educator that is providing an exam, you should carefully consider what the course is about and what skills the students should have learned to ensure your exam accurately tests for those skills.

3. Prioritize Accessibility, Equity, and Objectivity

When it comes to providing an assessment, it’s also important to ensure that the test content is without bias as much as possible. This means that it must be accessible and equitable. For example, if you are testing whether or not someone has the right skills to be a computer programmer but you include questions about their race, where they live, or if they have a physical disability, you are including questions that open up the opportunity for test results to be biased and discriminatory. This could result in someone being excluded or failing for the wrong — or even illegal — reasons. If someone is a person of color or uses a wheelchair, for instance, that has nothing to do with whether or not they are a good computer programmer. 

It’s also crucial to be mindful of the test content to make sure it doesn’t unintentionally exclude any groups of people. For example, a truly objective assessment in higher education will account for some students that require accommodations or have different learning styles. It’s not fair to create a test without keeping students with disabilities in mind, especially since only about a third of students with disabilities inform their college. Rather than assuming those who take your test live without disabilities, strive to make each question accessible to everyone. Use inclusive language, layman’s terms where applicable, accommodations for screen readers, and anything you can think of to help everyone access and take your exam equally.

4. Conduct an Analysis and Review of the Test

Finally, after you have created your test, you should conduct a review and analysis before distributing it to your students or prospective employees. To review, you can ask fellow colleagues or other experts to take a look at your test. Having other people review your test can help you spot any issues you might not have caught yourself.

There are also programs you can run the test through that can analyze the questions to ensure they are valid and reliable. If any question doesn’t fit or is irrelevant, the program will flag it as needing to be removed or, perhaps, rephrased so it is more relevant.

Creating exams and assessments that are more valid and reliable is essential for both the growth of students and those in the workforce. If you don’t accurately test for the right things, it can negatively affect your company and your employees or hinder students’ educational development. It’s also important to regularly review and update your tests as needs change, as well as be supportive and provide feedback after the test.

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