An achievement test is an exam designed to assess how much knowledge a person has in a certain area or set of areas. Schools use these tests with some regularity to both place students into appropriate grade levels and skill groupings and to assess teacher efficiency. Achievement tests may also be used by private schools and elite institutions as admissions benchmarks, and sometimes appear in the workplace, too — particularly when it comes to determining whether certain employees have what it takes to assume greater responsibilities or to transition to different leadership areas.
The main goal of any achievement test is to ascertain what sort of information the test-taker already knows. This makes it somewhat different from aptitude or abilities tests, both of which are designed to gauge how much potential a person has for later learning. Looking only at achievement can give administrators a good idea of where the test taker is at the present moment when it comes to knowledge of a specific topic or subject area. Most tests are designed to be straightforward for this reason, and they tend to present material in a clear and unambiguous way.
Measuring Student Proficiency
Schools often use these tests to determine the appropriate grade level for students who are either new to the system or need to be reassessed for one reason or another. The idea here is not to draw a conclusion about the general intelligence of the child being tested, but rather is to ensure that each student is placed in a classroom where he or she will have the best opportunity to learn. This prepares the student to move on to more advanced material in later years.
Tests can also be used as a benchmark for either “gifted” or “remedial” programs, both of which offer extra support to students who need it. For example, a student who does not do well with basic mathematics on an achievement test is likely to be placed in a remedial learning class. Doing so provides the student with the opportunity to master the basics before attempting to learn more advanced mathematical concepts like algebra or geometry. At a later date, the student may have a chance to be examined again; should the results indicate that the student is sufficiently prepared to move on to something more complicated, he or she can be reassigned to a more challenging course of study.
On the other end of the spectrum, a child who finds easy success on the vocabulary section of an achievement test, for instance, is likely to be placed in an “advanced” language or literature class where he or she can be challenged. Schools are often able to teach students more effectively by reaching out to them where they are, but they only get this information once test results are in.
How Test Results Are Used to Streamline Schools
In many places, particularly in the United States, schools use broad achievement tests to make sure that all students are learning at similar levels. In these cases, test results are used primarily for administrative purposes and scores may or may not be associated with individual students. Schools with disproportionately low or high scores are often the subject of further evaluation by local or national education officers.
Controversy and Skepticism
Though they are widely used in schools, achievement tests are not without their skeptics. Many of the most vocal opponents argue that using the tests encourages teachers and educators to skew their curricula to encourage higher scores rather than focusing on individual student learning. This can be particularly troublesome in situations where schools are offered financial incentives or other bonuses for high scores, or penalized for low ones.
Some groups also argue that standardized achievement tests are skewed to favor certain subsets of students over others. The way questions are framed, the vocabulary employed, and even the basic baselines in use make it easier for students of certain socioeconomic, racial, or ethnic backgrounds to do well, these opponents argue. In response, most school boards try to regularly examine their questions to ensure that they will adequately measure all students.
Use as an Admission Standard
Private schools and elite institutions may also use this sort of exam as a way to measure the basic knowledge of applicants. Results give school administrators a way to measure exactly where a prospective student is in terms of actual learning. Essays, interviews, and past school records can give a rough idea of how a student will perform, but the test can provide greater insight into what he or she already knows. This can help determine whether he or she would be a good fit for the academic environment.
Role in the Workplace
In some cases, companies and businesses may administer achievement tests to employees as a way of determining the best candidates for promotion or advancement. Tests used in these circumstances are often a bit different from those used in academic settings, as their main goal is not to assess book learning, but rather corporate or industrial knowledge. This sort of exam is usually given by a human resources professional or project manager, and it can help identify the top contenders for certain positions. Selecting people who already have the basic background knowledge saves time and money when it comes to training later on.