G Theory and Reliability for Assessments with Randomly Selected Items

Austin Fossey-42Posted by Austin Fossey

One of our webinar attendees recently emailed me to ask if there is a way to calculate reliability when items are randomly selected for delivery in a classical test theory (CTT) model.

As with so many things, the answer comes from Lee Cronbach—but it’s not Cronbach’s Alpha. In 1963, Cronbach, along with Goldine Gleser and Nageswari Rajaratnam, published a paper on generalizability theory, which is often called G theory for brevity or to sound cooler. G theory is a very powerful set of tools, but today I am focusing on one aspect of it: the generalizability coefficient, which describes the degree to which observed scores might generalize to a broader set of measurement conditions. This is helpful when the conditions of measurement will change for different participants, as is the case when we use different items, different raters, different administration dates, etc.

In G theory, measurement conditions are called facets. A facet might include items, test forms, administration occasions, or human raters. Facets can be random (i.e., they are a sample of a much larger population of potential facets), or they might be fixed, such as a condition that is controlled by the researcher. The hypothetical set of conditions across all possible facets is called, quite grandly, the universe of generalization. A participant’s average measurement across the universe of generalization is called their universe score, which is similar to a true score in CTT, except that we no longer need to assume that all measurements in the universe of generalizability are parallel.

In CTT, the concept of reliability is defined as the ratio of true score variance to observed score variance. Observed scores are just true scores plus measurement error, so as measurement error decreases, reliability increases toward 1.00.

The generalizability coefficient is defined as the ratio of universe score variance to expected score variance, which is similar to the concept of reliability in CTT. The generalizability coefficient is made of variance components, which differ depending on the design of the study, and which can be derived from an analysis of variance (ANOVA) summary table. We will not get into the math here, but I recommend Linda Crocker and James Algina’s Introduction to Classical and Modern Test Theory for a great introduction and easy-to-follow examples of how to calculate generalizability coefficients under multiple conditions. For now, let’s return to our randomly selected items.

In his chapter in Educational Measurement, 4th Edition, Edward Haertel illustrated the overlaps between G theory and CTT reliability measures. When all participants see the same items, the generalizability coefficient is made up of the variance components for the participants and for the residual scores, and it yields the exact same value as Cronbach’s Alpha. If the researcher wants to use the generalizability coefficient to generalize to an assessment with more or fewer items, then the result is the same as the Spearman-Brown formula.

But when our participants are each given a random set of items, they are no longer receiving parallel assessments. The generalizability coefficient has to be modified to include a variance component for the items, and the observed score variance is now a function of three things:

  • Error variance.
  • Variance in the item mean scores.
  • Variance in the participants’ universe scores.

Note that error variance is not the same as measurement error in CTT. In the case of a randomly generated assessment, the error variance includes measurement error and an extra component that reflects the lack of perfect correlation between the items’ measurements.

For those of you randomly selecting items, this makes a difference! Cronbach’s Alpha may yield low or even meaningless results when items are randomly selected (e.g., negative values). In an example dataset, 1,000 participants answered the same 200 items. For this assessment, Cronbach’s Alpha is equivalent to the generalizability coefficient: 0.97. But if each of those participants had answered 50 randomly selected items from the same set, Cronbach’s Alpha is no longer appropriate. If we tried to use Cronbach’s Alpha, we would have seen a depressing number: 0.50. However, the generalizability coefficient is 0.65–still too low, but better than the alpha value.

Finally, it is important to report your results accurately. According to the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, you can report generalizability coefficients as reliability evidence if it is appropriate for the design of the assessment, but it is important not to use these terms interchangeably. Generalizability is a distinct concept from reliability, so make sure to label it as a generalizability coefficient, not a reliability coefficient. Also, the Standards require us to document the sources of variance that are included (and excluded) from the calculation of the generalizability coefficient. Readers are encouraged to refer to the Standards’ chapter on reliability and precision for more information.

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