Is There Value in Reporting Subscores?

Austin Fossey-42Posted by Austin Fossey

The decision to report subscores (reported as Topic Scores in Questionmark’s software) can be a difficult one, and test developers often need to respond to demands from stakeholders who want to bleed as much information out of an instrument as they can. High-stakes test development is lengthy and costly, and the instruments themselves consume and collect a lot of data that can be valuable for instruction or business decisions. It makes sense that stakeholders want to get as much mileage as they can out of the instrument.

It can be anticlimactic when all of the development work results in just one score or a simple pass/fail decision. But that is after all what many instruments are designed to do. Many assessment models assume unidimensionality, so a single score or classification representing the participant’s ability is absolutely appropriate. Nevertheless, organizations often find themselves in the position of trying to wring out more information. What are my participants’ strengths and weaknesses? How effective were my instructors? There are many ways in which people will try to repurpose an assessment.

The question of whether or not to report subscores certainly falls under this category. Test blueprints often organize the instrument around content areas (e.g., Topics), and these lend themselves well to calculating subscores for each of the content areas. From a test user perspective, these scores are easy to interpret, and they are considered valuable because they show content areas where participants perform well or poorly, and because it is believed that this information can help inform instruction.

But how useful are these subscores? In their article, A Simple Equation to Predict a Subscore’s Value, Richard Feinberg and Howard Wainer explain that there are two criteria that must be met to justify reporting a subscore:

  • The subscore must be reliable.
  • The subscore must contain information that is sufficiently different from the information that is contained by the assessment’s total score.

If a subscore (or any score) is not reliable, there is no value in reporting it. The subscore will lack precision, and any decisions made on an unreliable score might not be valid. There is also little value if the subscore does not provide any new information. If the subscores are effectively redundant to the total score, then there is no need to report them. The flip side of the problem is that if subscores do not correlate with the total score, then the assessment may not be unidimensional, and then it may not make sense to report the total score. These are the problems that test developers wrestle with when they lie awake at night.

Excerpt from Questionmark’s Test Analysis Report showing low reliability of three topic scores.

As you might have guessed from the title of their article, Feinberg and Wainer have proposed a simple, empirically-based equation for determining whether or not a subscore should be reported. The equation yields a value that Sandip Sinharay and Shelby Haberman called the Value Added Ratio (VAR). If a subscore on an assessment has a VAR value greater than one, then they suggest that this justifies reporting it. All of the VAR values that are less than one, should not be reported. I encourage interested readers to check out Feinberg and Wainer’s article (which is less than two pages, so you can handle it) for the formula and step-by-step instructions for its application.


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