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Column One: Research

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Lincoln, Neb--When officials of the Crowley Independent School District in Texas were looking for a new test to measure the adaptive behaviors of prospective special-education students, they turned first to their bookshelves.

There, they found a volume--little known outside the testing world--that for test-buyers has become as indispensable as Consumer Reports is for appliance shoppers: the Mental Measurement Yearbook, published by the Buros Institute of Mental Measurement here.

Just as the consumer publication provides objective information on the reliability and usefulness of various models of appliances, the yearbook offers independent scholarly evaluations of new educational and psychological tests. And it does not mince words when reviewers think a test is no good.

"The state has a list of approved instruments in special education,'' says Edith Heil, administrator for special programs for the Crowley schools. "Some are more appropriate than others. We carefully research Buros to make certain we choose the right instrument."

"It's on the shelf with the dictionary and the encyclopedia as one of the research tools we use quite often," Ms. Heil adds.

In its 53-year history, the yearbook and the institute have become fixtures in the measurement community. In addition to the testimony from school administrators like Ms. Heil, the publication has also earned the respect of test publishers, who generally regard the reviews as constructive criticism, and from researchers, who have lined up to write the reviews.

Now, as institute officials are putting together the 11th volume of the Yearbook, which is expected to be published late this year, they are also looking for ways to make their products more useful to consumers.

"People who use tests are singularly uninformed about psychometrics," says Jane C. Conoley, co-editor of the Yearbook. "The consumer has a legitimate goal in mind, but right-thinking people can be led down the garden path. It takes sophisticated psychometrics to show them the way."

Not a 'Good Housekeeping Seal'

Founded in 1938 by the late Oscar K. Buros, an educational psychologist who taught at Rutgers University, the Buros Institute of Mental Measurement has for more than 50 years been casting a critical eye at commercially available educational and psychological tests.

It moved here to the University of Nebraska when Mr. Buros died in 1978, and his widow, Louella, opened a nationwide competition to find a permanent home for the institute.

In undertaking the venture, Mr. Buros took the risk of offending the commercial publishers he relied on for his studies, according to Barbara S. Plake, the institute's director.

"Publishers said, 'I thought you were my friend," she notes.

Since then, she adds, the institute has gained a reputation as scholarly and sound, to the point where publishers routinely send the institute copies of new tests on the market.

In fact, she adds, although the test-makers are prohibited by copyright restrictions from using any of the yearbook's information in its advertising, they have found that even inclusion in the book helps sales. But she cautions that, since the institute reviews every new and substantially revised test published, mere inclusion does not constitute a "Good Housekeeping seal of approval."

"Customers rely on us," Ms. Plake says. "We really are the principal source of information on tests. If a test isn't in the Mental Measurement Yearbook, a publisher would have a hard time selling it, even if the reviews are not great."

Nancy S. Cole, executive vice president of the Educational Testing Service, the nation's largest testing firm, says she has no evidence that the volume affects sales. To do so, it would have to be more widely used than it is now, she says.

But she agrees that publishers pay attention to the reviews in the yearbook.

"It's taken seriously enough by publishers that a bad review might hurt them," Ms. Cole says.

Some Scathing Reviews

In compiling its publication, the Buros Institute first solicits from publishers three copies of every commercially available test that is new or has been substantially revised since the last volume was published.

The institute then selects two reviewers, usually academic experts, who will write five-page evaluations of the tests. The publication also includes all research literature on the tests under review.

Two copies of the tests go to the reviewers; the third stays here in Lincoln. Over the years, the institute has collected one of the largest test libraries in the world, Ms. Conoley notes.

The library provided an invaluable resource for one University of New Orleans researcher, who spent a summer there and conducted a comprehensive study of the documentation on tests provided by test publishers, notes Lawrence M. Rudner, director of the eric Clearinghouse on Testing and Measurement.

"That would only be possible with a library like that," Mr. Rudner says.

The reviewers--who are unpaid--analyze the test and compare it to the publisher's claims. Sometimes they will field-test the test themselves to evaluate it, Ms. Con6oley says.

Although they give reviewers free rein to consider any aspect of the tests they review, most pay closest attention to issues of validity--whether the test measures what it is supposed to measure--and reliability--whether it is likely to obtain the same result with different test-takers or with the same test-taker at different times. But the reviewers also bring their own knowledge and critical skills to bear, Ms. Plake says.

"If all we wanted was a factual review, we could do that," she says. "We don't want just the facts. We want an evaluation."

As a result, some of the reviews are quite scathing, Ms. Conoley notes. One reviewer of a new version of the Wechsler intelligence test for children--one of the most commonly used such tests anywhere--called it "an albatross around the neck of applied psychology," she recalls.

Ms. Cole of the ets, who wrote some reviews for the Yearbook before joining the testing firm, also remembers one review she wrote that was so critical that "the publisher should have pulled the test off the market."

Perhaps surprisingly, because they have attracted so much criticism from other quarters, standardized achievement tests generally earn high marks in the Yearbook, Ms. Conoley notes.

"Several represent the state of the art in item development and test development," she says.

Ms. Plake acknowledges that standardized multiple-choice tests often fail to measure all the qualities educators want to know about students, as critics contend. But the proposed alternatives--so-called performance-based assessments--have yet to prove themselves valid and reliable measures of student abilities, she says.

"There is a lot of research needed to be done to assess the improvement in the quality of information from performance-type appraisals [compared with] multiple-choice types," she says.

Interpreting the Reviews

In addition to putting together the Yearel10lbook, institute officials also consult with readers to help interpret the reviews.

For example, Ms. Conoley notes, lawyers often call the institute to find out if a test referred to in testimony, such as a Rorschach "ink blot" test, is valid and reliable.

School officials also frequently call for help in selecting new tests, she notes.

"If they're faced with choosing a new testing series, they really look for input," she says. "We get calls asking if there is anything new in the pipeline and to interpret reviews."

"Sometimes, they ask, 'Would you recommend a test?"' Ms. Conoley adds. "We can't do that."

To make their products more useful, institute officials have decided to step up their publication schedule. Unlike during Mr. Buros's day, when the Yearbook was published every five or six years, officials now intend to move toward an annual schedule. The 10th edition was published in 1989; the 11th is expected to be published this year.

In addition, the institute has placed its products on a computerized data base, so that readers with access to a bibliographic retrieval service can read them sooner.

"As soon as a pair of reviews is processed, they are immediately available," Ms. Conoley says. "Readers don't have to wait for the yearly publication."

Ms. Plake also notes that the institute may also publish materials to help teachers and school officials understand testing issues. Last year, for example, in conjunction with the eric clearinghouse, the institute published such a book, entitled Understanding Standardized Tests.

In general, says Ms. Plake, who is president of the National Council of Measurement in Education, psychometricians need to do a better job of explaining tests to a broader audience.

"The measurement community has done a wonderful job of refining their science," she says. "They do things effectively. But they have done of horrible job of communicating what they do."

"If we're going to have a consumer base that understands testing," she says, "we have to be part of the training."

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