What is an Achievement Test?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

An achievement test is an exam designed to assess how much knowledge a person has in a certain area or set of areas. Schools use these tests with some regularity to both place students into appropriate grade levels and skill groupings and to assess teacher efficiency. Achievement tests may also be used by private schools and elite institutions as admissions benchmarks, and sometimes appear in the workplace, too — particularly when it comes to determining whether certain employees have what it takes to assume greater responsibilities or to transition to different leadership areas.

Schools regularly administer achievement tests.
Schools regularly administer achievement tests.

Basic Premise

The main goal of any achievement test is to ascertain what sort of information the test-taker already knows. This makes it somewhat different from aptitude or abilities tests, both of which are designed to gauge how much potential a person has for later learning. Looking only at achievement can give administrators a good idea of where the test taker is at the present moment when it comes to knowledge of a specific topic or subject area. Most tests are designed to be straightforward for this reason, and they tend to present material in a clear and unambiguous way.

Achievement tests are used to test teacher efficiency.
Achievement tests are used to test teacher efficiency.

Measuring Student Proficiency

Schools often use these tests to determine the appropriate grade level for students who are either new to the system or need to be reassessed for one reason or another. The idea here is not to draw a conclusion about the general intelligence of the child being tested, but rather is to ensure that each student is placed in a classroom where he or she will have the best opportunity to learn. This prepares the student to move on to more advanced material in later years.

The main goal of an achievement test is to ascertain what the test taker already knows.
The main goal of an achievement test is to ascertain what the test taker already knows.

Tests can also be used as a benchmark for either “gifted” or “remedial” programs, both of which offer extra support to students who need it. For example, a student who does not do well with basic mathematics on an achievement test is likely to be placed in a remedial learning class. Doing so provides the student with the opportunity to master the basics before attempting to learn more advanced mathematical concepts like algebra or geometry. At a later date, the student may have a chance to be examined again; should the results indicate that the student is sufficiently prepared to move on to something more complicated, he or she can be reassigned to a more challenging course of study.

Achievement tests will often test knowledge of complex mathematics like calculus and algebra.
Achievement tests will often test knowledge of complex mathematics like calculus and algebra.

On the other end of the spectrum, a child who finds easy success on the vocabulary section of an achievement test, for instance, is likely to be placed in an “advanced” language or literature class where he or she can be challenged. Schools are often able to teach students more effectively by reaching out to them where they are, but they only get this information once test results are in.

Standardized testing is often used in primary and secondary schools to ensure students have met expected learning goals.
Standardized testing is often used in primary and secondary schools to ensure students have met expected learning goals.

How Test Results Are Used to Streamline Schools

In many places, particularly in the United States, schools use broad achievement tests to make sure that all students are learning at similar levels. In these cases, test results are used primarily for administrative purposes and scores may or may not be associated with individual students. Schools with disproportionately low or high scores are often the subject of further evaluation by local or national education officers.

Problems featuring quadratic equations may be included on an achievement test.
Problems featuring quadratic equations may be included on an achievement test.

Controversy and Skepticism

Though they are widely used in schools, achievement tests are not without their skeptics. Many of the most vocal opponents argue that using the tests encourages teachers and educators to skew their curricula to encourage higher scores rather than focusing on individual student learning. This can be particularly troublesome in situations where schools are offered financial incentives or other bonuses for high scores, or penalized for low ones.

Some groups also argue that standardized achievement tests are skewed to favor certain subsets of students over others. The way questions are framed, the vocabulary employed, and even the basic baselines in use make it easier for students of certain socioeconomic, racial, or ethnic backgrounds to do well, these opponents argue. In response, most school boards try to regularly examine their questions to ensure that they will adequately measure all students.

Use as an Admission Standard

Private schools and elite institutions may also use this sort of exam as a way to measure the basic knowledge of applicants. Results give school administrators a way to measure exactly where a prospective student is in terms of actual learning. Essays, interviews, and past school records can give a rough idea of how a student will perform, but the test can provide greater insight into what he or she already knows. This can help determine whether he or she would be a good fit for the academic environment.

Role in the Workplace

In some cases, companies and businesses may administer achievement tests to employees as a way of determining the best candidates for promotion or advancement. Tests used in these circumstances are often a bit different from those used in academic settings, as their main goal is not to assess book learning, but rather corporate or industrial knowledge. This sort of exam is usually given by a human resources professional or project manager, and it can help identify the top contenders for certain positions. Selecting people who already have the basic background knowledge saves time and money when it comes to training later on.

Achievement test results may be used to divide students into appropriate grade levels.
Achievement test results may be used to divide students into appropriate grade levels.
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


GreenWeaver-I agree with you. I think that this testing is important. I know that for gifted programs many parents take their children to a psychologist that administers the Wechsler Achievement test.

It usually referred to as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children or WISC for short.

This test is an I.Q. test that measures all areas of cognitive ability. It is a series of tests that measures logical reasoning, processing speed in performing certain tasks, comprehension, vocabulary, digit span which refers to memory, and matrix reasoning, with symbol searching and coding as additional subsets of the test.

These tests do not measure academic achievement only cognitive ability. They help determine if a child is gifted or learning impaired. In order for a child to be considered gifted they must score in the 130 or higher range.

When measuring processing speed, a child might be given a puzzle that he has to put together. The time that he takes with the puzzle determines where he falls in that category.

The combinations of the 10 subset tests are put together and a final score is given. The tests normally take anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes or more.

Usually if the tests take longer than 90 minutes, the child has not reached the threshold which is why the child continues testing. These cases are rare and indicate profound intelligence in which the child might score at 150 or higher. Unlike a standard achievement test, the I.Q. tests are generally fun for kids.


Sunny27-I know that parents and teachers complain about the FCAT, but in reality that is the way it is in most states.

For example, in New York you have the Regents exam that functions the same way. I feel that there has to be accountability measures for the schools so that we know that children are receiving a decent education.

While preparation for the FCAT is necessary, it should only take a week or two. There are many FCAT prep books available that can allow the child to study at home.

My kids go to a private school that offers the Metropolitan Achievement Test that also measures a child’s cognitive capacity with respect to all major subjects and the teachers only spend a week covering it for about an hour or two each day that week.

This does not get in the way of teaching as the school continues with its curriculum despite the preparation for the testing.


Crispety-I think that achievement tests like the 3rd grade achievement test offered by the state of Florida help school districts know which are the underperforming schools and which students need additional help.

In Florida, the public schools offer the FCAT. The FCAT testing begins in third grade and continues until the child graduates from high school.

These tests are link with the No Child Left behind Act that withholds funding in underperforming schools.

In addition, students have to pass the exam in order to get promoted to the next grade. Students can take the test again in the summer if they did not pass as a last resort before the child is retained an additional year.

If the child passes the test they move on to the next grade.

There is a bit of controversy with this testing because the stakes are so high that many critics feel that the teachers are teaching to the test and not addressing other educational matters as a result.

Others feel that the stress placed on the students and teachers is so high that it is not conducive to learning.

The FCAT is a grade level basic skills test that measures the child’s ability to perform academic subjects at grade level.


Achievement tests are used to measure the level of mastery that a child has attained in given subject.

For example, the Wide Range Achievement test,the Terra Nova Achievement tests and the Stanford Achievement tests measure cognitive ability with respect to math computation, logical reasoning, reading comprehension, and vocabulary.

The tests compare students on a national scale and offer percentiles based on the student’s score. For example, in the Stanford Achievement Test, when I was in eighth grade I scored a 12.4 in logical reasoning and math computation.

This meant that I scored the same as a typical 12th grade student in their fourth month of the year. The tests also offer percentile measures. If you are in the 95th percentile, then you scored better than 95% of the students.

Achievement tests help schools identify students that should be placed in accelerated or gifted studies as well as those that need remedial help.

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