Thursday, July 25, 2013

Before the Beginning

In the beginning, when all is without form and void, here is what an item writer should have in order to write test items:
  • project overview and background
  • company and/or project style guide, whichever should be followed for the assignment
  • list of standards to be assessed (with or without item-to-skill distribution)
  • item specifications with content and domain limits
  • sample items
  • scoring criteria
  • boilerplate text for rubrics or sample rubrics for CR and ECR items
  • item templates, if required, or log-in information for online authoring systems
  • if an online authoring system is required, writers should be provided with training and a handbook or at the least, FAQ
  • additional information as to client preferences (e.g., should target vocabulary be at or slightly above grade level, are there particular constructs or formats that should be included or avoided, should developers use EDL Core Vocabulary or Children's Writer's Word Book to verify grade-level-appropriateness of vocabulary)
If these documents are not available, the project is not ready to launch content development. These are not luxuries; these are the bare minimum. These should be provided with every assignment. Without these, the best case scenario is that the writer operates at a significant disadvantage and loses work time puzzling and attempt to read the minds of the assigning editor.

Remember, item writers are usually paid by the item. We aren't paid for puzzling and mind-reading. Nor are we paid to pore over these materials--which poring takes four to eight hours if you do it right; editors often don't consider that each project is its own world with its own lexicon and laws, nor do they understand the need for ramp-up time, because to them, this is all old hat, they've already spent hours and hours studying the project and discussing the project in meetings, heck, they may have contributed to the proposal and participated in a series of internal and external start-up meetings--but we all of us content developers accept that it's an unfortunate cost of doing business and we wish the test publishing company personnel understood that each project comes with unpaid ramp-up time--four hours may not be a lot to those who are comfortably salaried with medical benefits, vacation days, sick leave, and retirement accounts, but to we who are not and we who have no vacation days and no sick days, we who are paid only as long as we are clicking away at our keyboard--and that is why we decline those small assignments for fewer than 50 items. (I long for the day when every content developer performed a cost/benefits analysis, and began declining work that costs him or her money. If we all got together, the world would change. It would have to.)

The need for puzzling and mind-reading may not be quite so troubling to the assigning editors--many of whom have never written items themselves (doesn't that seem funny? It's true! Oh, maybe they wrote one sample that one time for a proposal) and so don't know what item writers need, and also, some of whom have regrettably been taught by management ("Have the item writers do it! That's what they're paid for!") to view content developers as recalcitrant underlings, sort of grumbling lower housemaids, if you will--but will be troubling them in a worse scenario, one in which the writer is unable to meet specifications because none have been provided. So the writer submits items that are unusable for the project, and the editor either rejects or rewrites the items. Either way, the schedule is compromised, and now the editor feels the pain, too.

The item writer also must be provided with a clearly defined assignment that includes the following information:

  • targeted grade level(s)
  • item formats (multiple-choice, constructed-response, writing prompts, technology-enhanced, etc.)
  • additional criteria for formats, such as whether the items will be presented online or as paper-and-pencil tests
  • number of items
  • guidance about item-to-skill distribution if the distribution is not specified
  • mode of delivery (Word templates delivered through email, documents uploaded to a secure FTP, files added to Dropbox, submission through an authoring system, etc.)
  • point of contact--whom to contact with questions and best means of contact
  • deadline
  • any expectations not already specified in the project documentation
  • housekeeping details: whom to invoice, what information should be included, when to invoice
What is pleasant, but not necessary, is the editor's set of item review criteria or the item evaluation checklist; however, few companies have such a rubric in place, and so the items may be reviewed with a level of subjectivity that doesn't serve either party.

This is all before the beginning.

If any of this sounds unfamiliar--if you have questions about any of this, please ask me. Ask me. I will explain every little bit. Knowledge = power. 

What I'm reading: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, current New Yorker, and The Shortest Way Home by Juliette Fay (not such a big fan of the latter--has anyone read it? Can you convince me to continue? I'm thinking of doing the unthinkable and stopping in the middle. The reviews seem hyperbolic for what's there.)

UPDATE: Look what I found. A sneak preview, click here. More TK!
UPDATE: Made a correction.

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