Achievement Tests

Achievement tests are standardized instruments, typically administered to students in a group setting, intended to measure how thoroughly and well they have learned information in specific academic areas.


A natural ability to do something or learn something.
Inborn, present at birth.

Achievement tests are designed to assess content mastery for a particular academic subject area; determine level of competence in an area of occupational or professional knowledge; determine areas of mastery as well as areas in need of remediation; assist with academic planning; evaluate adequacy of current academic curriculum; assess subject matter teaching competency; determine academic or job placement and readiness for advancement; gather performance data for a group; determine academic preparation for advancement from secondary to postsecondary or postsecondary to graduate or professional education; determine readiness for occupational award of advancement; and assign grades in a specific content area.

Spelling tests, timed math tests, chapter tests for a particular subject, course final exams, martial arts belt tests, musical instrument competency level tests, as well as college, graduate, and professional school entrance examinations are all examples of achievement tests. Most occupational and professional licensure examinations are also measures of achievement.

Each test measures how well students or employees can demonstrate their knowledge of a particular academic subject or skill. Achievement tests are administered frequently in schools, on many levels ranging from classroom testing to district-wide, statewide, and national testing. Testing standards often dictate what is presented in the classroom, a practice referred to as teaching to the test. Teachers may be rewarded (usually financially or in terms of academic tenure) based upon how well their students perform on standardized tests of achievement. This type of specific lesson planning used by some teachers makes comparisons with other curricula difficult; thus, test results from the different methods become hard to compare. Moreover, students who experience excessive anxiety when taking tests may perform below their level of achievement.

Useful achievement tests must be both reliable and valid. Reliable tests are consistent and reproducible. That is, a student taking a similar test or the same test on a different date must perform similarly. Valid tests measure achievement on the subject they are intended to measure. For example, a test intended to measure achievement in geometry but filled with difficult vocabulary may not measure geometry achievement at all. The students who score well on such a test may be those who have good vocabularies or aboveaverage reading ability in addition to appropriate math skills. Students who perform poorly may have achieved the same geometry skills but may not know how to demonstrate them. Such tests would not be considered valid. In order for reliable comparisons to be made, all standardized tests, including achievement tests, must be given under similar conditions and with similar time limitations and scoring procedures.

Because it is difficult to separate out in test form the difference between aptitude, innate ability, achievement due to ability, and achievement resulting from learned knowledge or skills, it is impossible to precisely evaluate the results of tests that purport to measure achievement alone. Every individual carries some degree of experiential knowledge that may either help or hinder achievement test performance. The presence of unintended cultural or linguistic biases in achievement tests is an ongoing concern among test developers, educators, psychologists, and the general public. Political and legislative pressure to produce high scores, linking achievement test scores and standardized test performance to public funds for schools, has also become part of the achievement-test controversy.

See also Aptitude tests; Culture-fair test ; Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT); Test anxiety ; Validity .



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Arbuthnot, Keena. Filling in the Blanks: Standardized Testing and the Black-White Achievement Gap. Charlotte, NC: Information Age, 2011.

Noll, James Wm. Clashing Views on Educational Issues, 17th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013.


Schwinger, Maita, et al. “Academic Self-handicapping and Achievement: A Meta-analysis.” Journal of Educational Psychology 106, no. 3(August 2014): 744–61.


American Psychological Association. “Intelligence and Achievement Testing: Is the Half-Full Glass Getting Fuller?” (accessed July 18, 2015).

University of California, Davis. “Standardized Tests: Mental Ability.” (accessed July 18, 2015).