Unit 9

Item Analysis of Classroom Tests: Aims and Simplified Procedures



How well did my test distinguish among students according to the how well they met my learning goals?

Recall that each item on your test is intended to sample performance on a particular learning outcome. The test as a whole is meant to estimate performance across the full domain of learning outcomes you have targeted.

Unless your learning goals are minimal or low (as they might be, for instance, on a readiness test), you can expect students to differ in how well they have met those goals. (Students are not peas in a pod!). Your aim is not to differentiate students just for the fun of it, but to be able to measure the differences in mastery that occur.

One way to assess how well your test is functioning for this purpose is to look at how well the individual items do so. The basic idea is that a good item is one that good students get correct more often than do poor students. You might end up with a big spread in scores, but what if the good students are no more likely than poor students to get a high score? If we assume that you have actually given them proper instruction, then your test has not really assessed what they have learned. That is, it is "not working."

An item analysis gets at the question of whether your test is working by asking the same question of all individual itemsóhow well does it discriminate? If you have lots of items that didnít discriminate much if at all, you may want to replace them with better ones. If you find ones that worked in the wrong direction (where good students did worse) and therefore lowered test reliability, then you will definitely want to get rid of them.

In short, item analysis gives you a way to exercise additional quality control over your tests. Well-specified learning objectives and well-constructed items give you a headstart in that process, but item analyses can give you feedback on how successful you actually were.

Item analyses can also help you diagnose why some items did not work especially well, and thus suggest ways to improve them (for example, if you find distracters that attracted no one, try developing better ones).


Item analyses are intended to assess and improve the reliability of your tests. If test reliability is low, test validity will necessarily also be low. This is the ultimate reason you do item analysesóto improve the validity of a test by improving its reliability. Higher reliability will not necessarily raise validity (you can be more consistent in hitting the wrong target), but it is a prerequisite. That is, high reliability is necessary but not sufficient for high validity (do you remember this point on Exam 1?).

However, when you examine the properties of each item, you will often discover how they may or may not actually have assessed the learning outcome you intendedówhich is a validity issue. When you change items to correct these problems, it means the item analysis has helped you to improve the likely validity of the test the next time you give it.

The procedure (apply it to the sample results I gave you)

  1. Identify the upper 10 scorers and lowest 10 scorers on the test. Set aside the remainder.
  2. Construct an empty chart for recording their scores, following the sample I gave you in class. This chart lists the students down the left, by name. It arrays each item number across the top. For a 20-item test, you will have 20 columns for recording the answers for each student. Underneath the item number, write in the correct answer (A, B, etc.)
  3. Enter the student data into the chart you have just constructed.
    1. Take the top 10 scorers, and write each studentís name down the left, one row for each student. If there is a tie for 10th place, pick one student randomly from those who are tied.
    2. Skip a couple rows, then write the names of the 10 lowest-scoring students, one row for each.
    3. Going student by student, enter each studentís answers into the cells of the chart. However, enter only the wrong answers (A, B, etc.). Any empty cell will therefore signal a correct answer.
    4. Go back to the upper 10 students. Count how many of them got Item 1 correct (this would be all the empty cells). Write that number at the bottom of the column for those 10. Do the same for the other 19 questions. We will call these sums RU, where U stands for "upper."
    5. Repeat the process for the 10 lowest students. Write those sums under their 20 columns. We will call these RL, where L stands for "lower."
  4. Now you are ready to calculate the two important indices of item functioning. These are actually only estimates of what you would get if you had a computer program to calculate the indices for everyone who took the test (some schools do). But they are pretty good.
    1. Difficulty index. This is just the proportion of people who passed the item. Calculate it for each item by adding the number correct in the top group (RU) to the number correct in the bottom group (RL) and then dividing this sum by the total number of students in the top and bottom groups (20).
    2. RU + RL


      Record these 20 numbers in a row near the bottom of the chart.

    3. Discrimination index. This index is designed to highlight to what extent students in the upper group were more likely than students in the lower group to get the item correct. That is, it is designed to get at the differences between the two groups. Calculate the index by subtracting RL from RU, and then dividing by half the number of students involved (10)

    RU - RL


    Record these 20 numbers in the last row of the chart.

  5. You are now ready to enter these discrimination indexes into a second chart.
  6. Construct the second chart, based on the model I gave you in class. (This is the smaller chart that contains no student names.)
    1. Note that there are two rows of column headings in the sample. The first row of headings contains the maximum possible discrimination indexes for each item difficulty level (more on that in a moment). The second row contains possible difficulty indexes. Letís begin with that second row of headings (labeled "p"). As your sample shows, the entries range on the far left from "1.0" (for 100%) to ".4-0" (40%-0%) for a final catch-all column. Just copy the numbers from the sample onto your chart.
    2. Now copy the numbers from the first row of headings in the sample (labeled "Md").
  7. Now is the time to pick up your first chart again, where you will find the discrimination indexes you need to enter into your second chart.
    1. You will be entering its last row of numbers into the body of the second chart.
    2. List each of these discrimination indexes in one and only one of the 20 columns. But which one? List each in the column corresponding to its difficulty level. For instance, if item 4ís difficulty level is .85 and its discrimination index is .10, put the .10 in the difficulty column labeled ".85." This number is entered, of course, into the row for the fourth item
  8. Study this second chart.
    1. How many of the items are of medium difficulty? These are the best, because they provide the most opportunity to discriminate (to see this, look at their maximum discrimination indexes in the first row of headings). Items that most everybody gets right or gets wrong simply canít discriminate much.
    2. The important test for an itemís discriminability is to compare it to the maximum possible. How well did each item discriminate relative to the maximum possible for an item of its particular difficulty level? Here is a rough rule of thumb.
  9. Go back to the first chart and study it.
    1. Look at whether all the distracters attracted someone. If some did not attract any, then the distracter may not be very useful. Normally you might want to examine it and consider how it might be improved or replaced.
    2. Look also for distractors that tended to pull your best students and thereby lower discriminability. Consider whether the discrimination you are asking them to make is educationally significant (or even clear). You canít do this kind of examination for the sample data I have given you, but keep it in mind for real-life item analyses.
  10. There is much more you can do to mine these data for ideas about your items, but this is the core of an item analysis.

If you are lucky

If you use scantron sheets for grading exams, ask your school whether it can calculate item statistics when it processes the scantrons. If it can, those statistics probably include what you need: the (a) difficulty indexes for each item, (b) correlations of each item with total scores for each student on the test, and (c) the number of students who responded to each distracter. The item-total correlation is comparable to (and more accurate than) your discrimination index.

If your school has this software, then you won't have to calculate any item statistics, which makes your item analyses faster and easier. It is important that you have calculated the indexes once on your own, however, so that you know what they mean.