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ETS® Major Field Tests: Use Guidelines

The ETS® Major Field Tests are comprehensive undergraduate and MBA outcomes assessments designed to measure the critical knowledge and understanding obtained by students in a major field of study. The Major Field Tests go beyond the measurement of factual knowledge by helping you evaluate your students' ability to analyze and solve problems, understand relationships and interpret material from their major field of study.

Institutions planning to use the Major Field Tests should be aware of the possibilities and limitations of the tests. These guidelines provide information about the appropriate use of the Major Field Tests for those who use the scores. They are also intended to protect test takers from unfair decisions that may result from inappropriate uses of the test. Adherence to the guidelines is important.

Test Purpose

Review the test content and sample questions to verify that the content covered in the specific discipline are those that the institution seeks to measure. Examine samples of the score reports and statistical reports to verify that they include the information that the institution needs.

Selecting Students

If the purpose of testing is to make inferences about the performance of groups of students, institutions should test an adequate number of students from each of those groups, and the selected students from each group should be representative of the group as a whole. The best way to accomplish this is to test all of the students.

If the institution tests only a sample of the students, the sample should include an adequate number of students from each group about which the institution wants information, and the students should be selected in a way that will permit the results to be generalized to the group as a whole. It is particularly important not to limit the testing to students who volunteer to be tested, unless the institution wants information that applies only to those students.

Student Motivation

Assessments of student learning outcomes, such as the Major Field Tests, are widely used in higher education for accreditation, accountability and strategic planning purposes. Although important to institutions, the assessment results typically bear no obvious consequence for individual test takers. This lack of consequence can have a negative impact on student motivation. If the students are not motivated to do well on the test, their test scores will not reflect their actual skill levels.

ETS encourages institutions to implement strategies to boost student motivation to ensure that test results reflect your students' actual ability. Some institutions have had success motivating students by explaining how test results are used and how those results can affect the value of their college degree. To learn more about how you can motivate your students to perform their best, contact an ETS Advisor.

Limitations of Test Scores

A test contains only a sample of the content knowledge that students are expected to know within their discipline. On another sample of tasks designed to measure the same content, the students might perform somewhat differently. Information provided on the score reports enable the user of the scores to determine how much the scores could be expected to differ if a different set of tasks were used.

The reliability of the individual student total scores should be adequate for identifying deficits in student knowledge. However, these scores cannot be used as the basis for high-stakes decisions about individual students.

Every effort is made to include questions that assess the most common and important topics and skills as supported by feedback from our curriculum surveys from institutions around the United States. It does not and cannot measure all the content of interest to institutions of higher learning. When the Major Field Tests are used to evaluate an institution or any of its programs, they should be used in conjunction with other information. They should never be used as the sole means for evaluating the effectiveness of an institution or the educational progress of the students.

Limitations of Comparative Data

The data in the Comparative Data Guide are drawn entirely from institutions that use the Major Field Tests. Within any category of institutions, those that use the Major Field Tests are not likely to be representative of all programs in that discipline. In addition, the numbers of students tested and the sampling procedures vary from one institution to another, and it is impossible to verify that the students tested at each institution are representative of all the institution's students in that specific discipline.

Confidentiality of Score Data

ETS treats all score data for individuals and for institutions as confidential. Individual data are released only to the institution of the students tested. Identifiable institutional data are released only to the institution providing the data, unless the institution gives written permission to release the information to others. Institutions using the Major Field Tests should adopt a similar policy for the data from their individual students.

Validity Studies

The general appropriateness of using the Major Field Tests to assist in the assessment of the student learning outcomes of specific programs has been established by research studies carried out by ETS and others. Major Field Test scores may be appropriate for some other purposes, but it is important for the user to validate their use for those purposes. Departments and programs using the Major Field Tests are encouraged to collect validity information by conducting their own studies. The ETS staff is available to provide advice on the design of appropriate validation studies without charge.


If a department, program or test taker has questions regarding the appropriate use of the Major Field Tests, contact an ETS Advisor.

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