Computer-Adaptive Tests vs. Fixed-Form Assessments

As technology makes adaptive testing easier than ever, do fixed-form assessments still have a role? K-12 education leaders, especially assessment and curriculum directors, must make difficult choices regarding which screeners, diagnostics, formative assessments, and summative exams to use. By comparing the benefits and drawbacks of computer-adaptive testing and fixed-form assessments, it’s possible to select the right tool for the right job.

What is a computer-adaptive test?

Adaptive testing isn’t new, but computers have taken it far beyond traditional paper-and-pencil methods. At its core, computer-adaptive testing draws from an extensive item bank with questions and tasks aligned to various difficulty levels. As students take an exam, their responses determine which question will be seen next. For example, a student that misses a question may be given an easier item on the same topic or skill. Similarly, if the student submits a correct response, the next question might require application of the same skill in a more difficult context. Ultimately, the goal is to hone in on the student’s precise ability level.

What is a fixed-form assessment?

We’ve all taken a fixed-form assessment, the most common method for measuring achievement. A fixed-form assessment asks all students to respond to the same questions and complete the same tasks, making the comparison of student results efficient. The fact that teachers know which items were assigned and missed can also improve the specificity of their feedback, a proven contributor to improved student outcomes.

Picking a Winner for a Given Purpose

In order to determine which approach to assessment is best, we need to consider four essential purposes: efficiency, learning readiness indicators, formative assessment of curricula, and quality of feedback.


Many factors contribute to whether an exam efficiently measures student performance. A fixed-form assessment with too many questions can lead to fatigue and negatively impact results. Of course, a fixed-form assessment could be a short quiz, too. A computer-adaptive test that hastily passes judgment on a student’s skill level might not provide sufficient opportunities for students to demonstrate what they know and are able to do. In other words, this category is a toss-up.

Winner: None.

Learning Readiness Indicators

If the goal is to determine the precise level at which a student is currently performing, a computer-adaptive test is ideal. By pulling questions from thousands of items, the algorithm-driven assessment can pinpoint a student’s skill level or grade level equivalency. For example, a fourth grade student who excels at math could steadily receive more difficult questions until it was determined she was performing at a seventh grade level. On a more traditional fixed-form assessment, this student would likely earn a perfect score, but that doesn’t describe the student’s true proficiency level. Similarly, imagine that a seventh grade student is only reading at a fourth grade level. In this case, he would likely fail a fixed-form assessment, but the teacher wouldn’t know which texts to recommend to help him grow.

Winner: Computer-Adaptive Testing

Formatively Assessing Established Curricular Goals

Fixed-form assessments should align with a school’s curricula. The key word is “should.” Too often, teachers administer an assessment (e.g., interim formative assessment, district benchmark exam) that includes questions aligned to standards that have not yet been taught. In this case, an exceptional opportunity is missed. By building fixed-form assessments that measure exactly what’s been taught, educators can ensure that student results accurately reflect achievement.

Computer-adaptive tests are not typically designed to measure specific segments of a curriculum’s scope and sequence. While a computer-adaptive assessment might measure the breadth of a curriculum well, it is not likely to closely align with the first nine weeks or first semester of a school year. For this reason, computer-adaptive tests are best suited for the summative assessment of curriculum but not for formative assessment. This is why many states have transitioned (or started transitioning) to computer-adaptive exams for end-of-year, high-stakes testing.

Winner: Fixed-Form Assessment

Feedback for Students and Staff

When students complete computer-adaptive tests, the lack of questions used in common makes it difficult to conduct item level analysis or determine specific next steps for reviewing and reteaching important concepts. Reports from computer-adaptive tests might describe student performance in broad categories, but details about specific questions (e.g., the number of students answering correctly, the most frequently selected wrong answer) are usually not available.

By contrast, fixed-form assessments empower teachers to compare how students performed on every question and standard.  A teacher might identify a question that only 50% of students answered correctly. Closer analysis might reveal that one distractor accounted for most incorrect responses. An even closer look could uncover a mathematical misconception or vocabulary gap shared by multiple students. At this point, the teacher has rich information to group students and provide feedback that improves future performance.

Winner: Fixed-Form Assessment


Computer-adaptive tests and fixed-form assessments are both valuable tools. Rather than picking one over the other as a whole, it’s best to view them as complementary ways to assess learning readiness and achievement while providing varying types of feedback to students and teachers.

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