Of That

Brandt Redd on Education, Technology, Energy, and Trust

16 October 2018

Quality Assessment Part 7: Securing the Test

This is part 7 of a 10-part series on building high-quality assessments.

A Shield

Each spring, millions of students in the United States take their annual achievement tests. Despite proctoring, some fraction of those students carry in a phone or some other sort of camera, take pictures of test questions, and post them on social media. Concurrently, testing companies hire a few hundred people to scan social media sites for inappropriately shared test content and send takedown notices to site operators.

Proctoring, secure browsers, and scanning social media sites are parts of a multifaceted effort to secure tests from inappropriate access. If students have prior access to test content, the theory goes, then they will memorize answers to questions rather than study the principles of the subject. The high-stakes nature of the tests creates incentive for cheating.

Secure Browsers

Most computer-administered tests today are given over the world-wide web. But if students were given unfettered access to the web, or even to their local computer, they could look up answers online, share screen-captures of test questions, access an unauthorized calculator, share answers using chats, or even videoconference with someone who can help with the test. To prevent this, test delivery providers use a secure browser, also known as a lockdown browser. Such a browser is configured so it will only access the designated testing website and it takes over the computer - preventing access to other applications for the duration of the test. It also checks to ensure that no unauthorized applications are already running, such as screen grabbers or conferencing software.

Secure browsers are inherently difficult to build and maintain. That's because operating systems are designed to support multiple concurrent applications and to support convenient switching among applications. In one case, the operating system vendor added a dictionary feature — users could tap any word on the screen and get a dictionary definition of that word. This, of course, interfered with vocabulary-related questions on the test. In this, and many other cases, testing companies have had to work directly with operating system manufacturers to develop special features required to enable secure browsing.

Secure browsers must communicate with testing servers. The server must detect that a secure browser is in use before delivering a test and it also supplies the secure browser with lists of authorized applications that can be run concurrently (such as assistive technology). To date, most testing services develop their own secure browsers. So, if a school or district uses tests from multiple vendors, they must install multiple secure browsers.

To encourage a more universal solution. [Smarter Balanced] commissioned a Universal Secure Browser Protocol that would allow browsers and servers from different companies to work effectively together. They also commissioned and host a Browser Implementation Readiness Test (BIRT) that can be used to verify a browser - that it implements the required protocols and also the basic HTML 5 requirements. So far, Microsoft has implemented their Take a Test feature in Windows 10 that satisfies secure browser requirements and Smarter Balanced has released into open source a set of secure browsers for Windows, MacOS, iOS (iPad), Chrome OS (ChromeBook), Android, and Linux. Nevertheless, most testing companies continue to develop their own solutions.

Large Item Pools - An Alternative Approach

Could there be an alternative to all of this security effort? Deploying secure browsers on thousands of computers is expensive and inconvenient. Proctoring and social media policing cost a lot of time and money. And conspiracy theorists ask if the testing companies have something to hide in their tests.

Computerized-adaptive testing opens one possibility. If the pool of questions is big enough, the probability that a student encounters a question they have previously studied will be small enough that it won't significantly impact the test result. With a large enough pool, you could publish all questions for public review and still maintain a valid and rigorous test. I once asked a psychometrician how large the pool would have to be for this. He estimated about 200 questions in the pool for each one that appears on the test. Smarter Balanced presently uses a 20 to one ratio. Anther benefit of such a large item pool is that students can retake the test and still get a valid result.

Even with a large item pool, you would still need to use a secure browser and proctoring to prevent students from getting help from social media. That is, unless we can change incentives to the point that students are more interested in an accurate evaluation than they are in getting getting a top score.

Quality Factors

The goal of test security is to maintain the validity of test results; ensuring that students do not have access to questions in advance of the test and that they cannot obtain unauthorized assistance during the test. The following practices contribute to a valid and reliable test:

  • For computerized-adaptive tests, have a large item pool thereby reducing the impact of any item exposure and potentially allowing for retakes.
  • For fixed-form tests, develop multiple forms. As with a large item pool, multiple forms let you switch forms in the event that an item is exposed and also allows for retakes.
  • For online tests, use secure browser technology to prevent unauthorized use of the computer during the test.
  • Monitor social media for people posting test content.
  • Have trained proctors monitor testing conditions.
  • Consider social changes, related to how test results are used, that would better align student motivation toward valid test results.


The purpose of Test Security is to ensure that test results are a valid measure of student skill and that they are comparable to other students' results on the same test. Current best practices include securing the browser, effective proctoring, and monitoring social media. Potential alternatives include larger test item banks and better alignment of student and institutional motivations.

05 October 2018

Quality Assessment Part 6: Achievement Levels and Standard Setting

This is part 6 of a 10-part series on building high-quality assessments.

Two mountains, one with a flag on top.

If you have a child in U.S. public school, chances are that they took a state achievement test this past spring and sometime this summer you received a report on how they performed on that test. That report probably looks something like this sample of a California Student Score Report. It shows that "Matthew" achieved a score of 2503 in English Language Arts/Literacy and 2530 in Mathematics. Both scores are described as "Standard Met (Level 3)". Notably, in prior years Matthew was in the "Standard Nearly Met" category so his performance has improved.

The California School Dashboard offers reports of school performance according to multiple factors. For example, the Detailed Report for Castle View Elementary includes a graph of "Assessment Performance Results: Distance from Level 3".

Line graph showing performance of Lake Matthews Elementary on the English and Math tests for 2015, 2016, and 2017. In all three years, they score between 14 and 21 points above proficiency in math and between 22 and 40 points above proficiency in English.

To prepare this graph, they take the average difference between students' scale scores and the Level 3 standard for proficiency in the grade in which they were tested. For each grade and subject, California and Smarter Balanced use four achievement levels, each assigned to a range of scores. Here are the achievement levels for 5th grade Math (see this page for all ranges).

Level 1Less than 2455Standard Not Met
Level 22455 to 2527Standard Nearly Met
Level 32528 to 2578Standard Met
Level 4Greater than 2578Standard Exceeded

So, for Matthew and his fellow 5th graders, the Math standard for proficiency, or "Level 3" score, is 2528. Students at Lake Matthews Elementary, on average, exceeded the Math standard by 14.4 points on the 2017 tests.

Clearly, there are serious consequences associated with the assignment of scores to achievement levels. A difference of 10-20 points can make the difference between a school, or student, meeting or failing to meet the standard. Changes in proficiency rates can affect allocation of federal Title 1 funds, the careers of school staff, and even the value of homes in local neighborhoods.

More importantly to me, achievement levels must be carefully set if they are to provide reliable guidance to students, parents, and educators.

Standard Setting

Standard Setting is the process of assigning test score ranges to achievement levels. A score value that separates one achievement level from another is called a cut score. The most important cut score is the one that distinguishes between proficient (meeting the standard) and not proficient (not meeting the standard). For the California Math test, and for Smarter Balanced, that's the "Level 3" score but different tests may have different achievement levels.

When Smarter Balanced performed its standard setting exercise in October of 2014, it used the Bookmark Method. Smarter Balanced had conducted a field test that previous spring (described in Part 4 of this series). From those field test results, they calculated a difficulty level for each test item and converted that into a scale score. For each grade, a selection of approximately 70 items were sorted from easiest to most difficult. This sorted list of items is called an Ordered Item Booklet (OIB) though, in the Smarter Balanced case, the items were presented online. A panel of experts, composed mostly of teachers, went through the OIB starting at the beginning (easiest item), and set a bookmark at the item they believed represented proficiency for that grade. A proficient student should be able to answer all preceding items correctly but might have trouble with the items that follow the bookmark.

There were multiple iterations of this process on each grade, and then the correlation from grade-to-grade was also reviewed. Panelists were given statistics on how many students in the field tests would be considered proficient at each proposed skill level. Following multiple review passes the group settled on the recommended cut scores for each grade. The Smarter Balanced Standard Setting Report describes the process in great detail.

Data Form

For each subject and grade, the standard setting process results in cut scores representing the division between achievement levels. The cut scores for Grade 5 math, from table above, are 2455, 2528, and 2579. Psychometricians also calculate the Highest Obtainable Scale Score (HOSS) and Lowest Obtainable Scale Score (LOSS) for the test.

I am not aware of any existing data format standard for achievement levels. Smarter Balanced publishes its achievement levels and cut scores on its web site. The Smarter Balanced test administration package format includes cut scores, and HOSS and LOSS; but not achievement level descriptors.

A data dictionary for publishing achievement levels would include the following elements:

Cut ScoreThe lowest *scale score* included in a particular achievement level.
LOSSThe lowest obtainable *scale score* that a student can achieve on the test.
HOSSThe highest obtainable *scale score* that a student can achieve on the test.
Achievement Level DescriptorA description of what an achievement level means. For example, "Met Standard" or "Exceeded Standard".

Quality Factors

The stakes are high for standard setting. Reliable cut scores for achievement levels ensure that students, parents, teachers, administrators, and policy makers receive appropriate guidance for high-stakes decisions. If the cut scores are wrong - many decisions may be ill informed. Quality is achieved by following a good process:

  • Begin with a foundation of high quality achievement standards, test items that accurately measure the standards, and a reliable field test.
  • Form a standard-setting panel composed of experts and grade-level teachers.
  • Ensure that the panelists are familiar with the achievement standards that the assessment targets.
  • Inform the panel with statistics regarding actual student performance on the test items.
  • Follow a proven standard-setting process.
  • Publish the achievement levels and cut scores in convenient human-readable and machine-readable forms.


Student achievement rates affect policies at state and national levels, direct budgets, impact staffing decisions, influence real estate values, and much more. Setting achievement level cut scores too high may set unreasonable expectations for students. Setting them too low may offer an inappropriate sense of complacency. Regardless, achievement levels are set on a scale calibrated to achievement standards. If the standards for the skills to be learned are not well-designed, or if the tests don't really measure the standards, then no amount of work on the achievement level cut scores can compensate.