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Title Improving ability measurement in surveys by following the principles of IRT: The Wordsum vocabulary test in the General Social Survey.
Source Social Science Research, 41, 5, pp. 1003-16
Year 2012
Access date 24.06.2013

Survey researchers often administer batteries of questions to measure respondents' abilities, but these batteries are not always designed in keeping with the principles of optimal test construction. This paper illustrates one instance in which following these principles can improve a measurement tool used widely in the social and behavioral sciences: the GSS's vocabulary test called "Wordsum". This ten-item test is composed of very difficult items and very easy items, and item response theory (IRT) suggests that the omission of moderately difficult items is likely to have handicapped Wordsum's effectiveness. Analyses of data from national samples of thousands of American adults show that after adding four moderately difficult items to create a 14-item battery, "Wordsumplus" (1) outperformed the original battery in terms of quality indicators suggested by classical test theory; (2) reduced the standard error of IRT ability estimates in the middle of the latent ability dimension; and (3) exhibited higher concurrent validity. These findings show how to improve Wordsum and suggest that analysts should use a score based on all 14 items instead of using the summary score provided by the GSS, which is based on only the original 10 items. These results also show more generally how surveys measuring abilities (and other constructs) can benefit from careful application of insights from the contemporary educational testing literature.

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Year of publication2012
Bibliographic typeJournal article