Performance Test Items

A performance test item is designed to assess the ability of a student to perform correctly in a simulated situation (i.e., a situation replicating a real-life scenario in which the student would have to apply his/her learning). The concept of simulation is central in performance testing. In theory, a performance test could be constructed for any skill and real-life situation. In practice, most performance tests have been developed for the assessment of vocational, managerial, administrative, leadership, communication, interpersonal and physical education skills in various simulated situations. An illustrative example of a performance test item is provided below.

Sample performance test item

Assume that some of the instructional objectives of an urban planning course include the development of the student's ability to effectively use the principles covered in the course in various "real life" situations common for an urban planning professional. A performance test item could measure this development by presenting the student with a specific situation which represents a "real life" situation. For example,

An urban planning board makes a last-minute request for the professional to act as a consultant and critique a written proposal which is to be considered in a board meeting that very evening. The professional arrives before the meeting and has one hour to analyze the written proposal and prepare his critique. The critique presentation is then made verbally during the board meeting. Reactions from the members of the board and from the audience include requests for an explanation of specific points and  informed attacks on the positions taken by the professional.

The performance test designed to simulate this situation would require that the student to be tested role-play the professional's part, while students or faculty act the other roles in the situation. Various aspects of the "professional's" performance would then be observed and rated by several judges with the necessary background. The ratings could then be used both to provide the student with a diagnosis of his/her strengths and weaknesses and to contribute to an overall summary evaluation of the student's abilities.

Advantages & limitations

Performance test items have several advantages. They:

  • can most appropriately measure learning objectives which focus on the ability of the students to apply skills or knowledge in real-life situations.
  • usually provide a degree of test validity not possible with standard paper and pencil test items.
  • are useful for measuring learning objectives concerning physical skills.

Performance test items also have several limitations. They:

  • are difficult and time-consuming to construct.
  • are primarily used for testing students individually and not for testing groups. Consequently, they are relatively costly, time-consuming, and inconvenient forms of testing.
  • generally provide low test and low scorer reliability.
  • generally do not provide an objective measure of student achievement or ability (subject to bias on the part of the observer/grader).

Suggestions for writing performance test items

  • Prepare items that elicit the type of behavior you want to measure.
  • Clearly identify and explain the simulated situation to the student.
  • Make the simulated situation as “life-like” as possible.
  • Provide directions which clearly inform the students of the type of response called for.
  • When appropriate, clearly state time and activity limitations in the directions.
  • Adequately train the observer(s)/scorer(s) to ensure that they are fair in scoring the appropriate behaviors.