Whether you are writing a question from scratch or selecting one that has already been written (e.g., from an item bank), there are many considerations you must keep in mind in order to render accurate data on student mastery of a standard or concept. This lesson walks you through important question design considerations.
Where to Start
Have related resources handy. For example:
- State Content Standards and/or National Common Core Standards
- Crosswalk Documents (available from different sources) show how State Content Standards and/or National Common Core Standards (available for core subjects like English and Math)
- Released Test Questions
- Bloom's Taxonomy
- Assessments and/or assessment questions available for use
- Pacing guide
- Texts and curriculum
- The online Item Writing for Tests and Examinations by UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning offers a very extensive approach to item writing that elaborates on concepts covered in this lesson
You also might want to review question term definitions such as the following (used in this lesson):
- Answer Options = options a student may pick from in a closed-response (e.g., multiple choice) assessment; these include the correct answer and the distractors
- Distractor = wrong answer
- Instructions = these may be directed at the student (e.g., "Read the passage below and answer the questions that follow") or at the test administrator (e.g., common for lower-elementary levels where the teacher reads questions to the class)
- Item = question or other way of measuring the student's mastery level of a particular standard or concept
- Keyed Response = another term for correct answer
- Rationale = reason student might have selected an answer option (e.g., if he selects "B. 10" for the question "What is 8 + 12?" he might have forgotten to carry the 1)
- Stem = statement or question that precedes answer choices
- Stimulus Material = material intended to be used to answer a question (e.g., graph, table, passage, map, picture, diagram, etc.)
Before You Write/Select a Question
Reference your resources to better understand the type of question you should write or select. For example:
- Read complete verbiage of the selected State Content Standard and/or National Common Core Standard being assessed and ask yourself, "How might a student demonstrate mastery of this standard?"
- Review Released Test Questions and ask yourself, "How might the question look?" Keep in mind that these test items are retired for various reasons. Also keep in mind that not all questions/items must be multiple choice (keep efficiency and resources in mind, however, if a different format is absolutely necessary).
- Review Bloom's Taxonomy and ask yourself, "What is the necessary rigor level?"
- Reveal the pacing guide and assessment details and ask yourself, "What are the appropriate standards, format, etc. for this test?"
As You Write/Select a Question
As you write or select questions, adhere to appropriate:
The question should match the standard in terms of content. For example, if the standard requires an American fable, does the question relates to an American fable?
The question should match the standard in terms of rigor. For example, if the standard requires students to evaluate arguments contributing to the development of the Constitution, the question should require students to evaluate. Consider the Bloom's Taxonomy level of the standard being assessed.
The vocabulary should be appropriate for the standard level being assessed. You should not turn the assessment into a vocabulary test. In other words, you should not include high academic vocabulary that is not appropriate for the standard being assessed - otherwise your results could imply students are struggling with a standard when in fact they were struggling with the language. However (and this is a huge "however"), remember that the vocabulary should be appropriate for the standard, and you should use terms the standard and/or real life will require in conjunction with the concept (i.e., don't refer to subtraction as "take aways" on your test because that is the way you refer to subtraction when you teach - use terminology the student will encounter and should understand). If you are concerned about English Learners and Special Education students taking a test, remember that you may opt (in a uniform way for all teachers administering the test) to emulate state assessment practices of allowing the use of definition glossaries while taking the test for some students.
The question should be clear in what it’s asking and as succinct as possible. Also, there should be no misleading distractors (e.g., don't try to "trick" students).
Freedom from Bias
The question should be free of bias, meaning that students of all backgrounds should have an equal chance of getting it right. For example, would socioeconomically disadvantaged students be at a disadvantage due to lack of familiarity with something (e.g., a ski lift analogy used in a slope calculation question)? ...or might non-Hispanic students be confused by the term Quinceañera?
Wrong answer options should be selected carefully based on the likelihood of their selection and the information they will offer educators after the test. Consider the above example:
- A will let me know which students added rather than multiplied (perhaps they need help spotting details, or perhaps they don't know how to multiple).
- B will let me know which students multiplied 6 by each number in 14 and then added the 2 together.
- C will let me know which students forgot to carry the 2 when multiplying.
- D is the correct answer.
Logical Distractor Order
When the answers are numeric, list them from low to high.
Questions should be positive in terms of how they are worded and/or implications they make. For example, avoid using the terms not, none of the following, except, etc., and if you must use such terms, place them in all capital letters (e.g., "NOT").
While multiple choice questions may share the same stimulus material, all questions should function independently from one another. For example, answering a question correctly should not rely on having answered a previous question correctly, nor should it rely on (or be helped by) information revealed in another question (within the stem or answer options).
Consider all of the following in the way of format:
Consider the best context with which to ask the question. Keep in mind that not all questions/items or assessments must involve multiple choice, but keep efficiency and resources in mind if a different format is absolutely necessary. In other words, do not abandon multiple choice simply because you do not "like" multiple choice; rather, abandon it if it is truly not the best way to assess a standard (e.g., a "Listening and Speaking" English-Language Arts strand standard, staff members have a solid understanding of authentic assessments, etc.). Action Learning System provides great resources on common question stems (e.g., for English, Math, Science, and History, and more) to consider.
# of Answer Options
On a multiple choice test, 2 or 4-5 answer options is the desirable number. Avoid 3 (easier to answer than 4) unless you are seeking to simplify the test (e.g., as the California Modified Assessment is like a simplified version of the California Standards Test for Special Education students), since it increases the likelihood of students merely guessing correctly. It is best if all questions on the test contain the same number of answer options. If this is not possible, try to group questions with the same number of answer options together.
Answer options should be approximately the same length (as shown in the CST Released Test Question example above). Instructions directed at the student (e.g., "Read the passage below and answer the questions that follow") or at the test administrator (e.g., common for lower-elementary levels where the teacher reads questions to the class) should be as brief and direct as possible.
You might opt to mirror the look of state Released Test Questions in terms of how questions are numbered, how answer options are itemized, how many columns are used, how much white space is on a page, etc. If this assessment is one in a series, they should all maintain a cohesive look.
Remember that while there are numerous advantages to multiple choice tests (e.g., they make a good start to an assessment program, especially if your colleagues are resistant, they keep scoring objective, they facilitate instant feedback for students/parents/educators, they save educators time, they are cost effective, etc.), Illuminate also supports multiple measures.
For example, your assessment might feature a combination of assessment types (as shown above). You don’t have to mix assessment types like this; just know the Illuminate sheet design is open-ended to accommodate varied needs.
Watch Out for Common Pitfalls
The following examples are likely good questions, but they are often mistakenly avoided:
- A term is used that students might not understand. The standard and/or real life requires that students understand the term, but teachers simply don't use the term in their instruction and/or the term isn't used in the text/curriculum. This question could be great, as results could call attention to cases where teachers need to supplement the curriculum (start varying their vocabulary when they teach the concept, and supplement texts/curriclum that aren't comprehensive in their terminology).
- The question seems too hard (e.g., harder than others), but it is appropriately aligned to the standard and its rigor level, and/or it closely matches Released Test Questions. Standards vary in difficulty, so this could be a great question to point out which students are struggling with this tough concept, as well as the types of mistakes they are making (e.g., view the Response Frequency Report to see which distractors students incorrectly selected).
Once your questions are in place, you'll want to craft and/or evaluate the assessment as a whole. Refer to the "Create/Select a Quality Assessment" lesson for guidance.