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Practical Guidelines For Developing Good EFL Test Items

Before providing you with some important guidelines for writing good EFL test items, I want to assure you that you know the following terms used in testing.

Test Blueprint (or Test Specifications)

It identifies the objectives and skills that you test and the relative weight on the test given to each. Being aware of this statement should precede any development of the test items. The test developer should construct the test according to these specifications. The existence of this blueprint is the crucial first step in the test development process.

One must be mindful that the test specifications cannot and should not remain static.

Pedagogy is not static and experts continually review and modify specifications for each test to reflect the current state of knowledge.

Test Items

They are questions on the test. Each item should measure only a single objective while each objective should be measured by one or several items, depending on the test specifications.

“EFL” stands for English as a foreign language.

“Good Test Items”

It means those test items that are mainly valid and reliable. To know the meaning of valid, reliable, and more characteristics of  a good test, you can get a look at the following article on my blog:

Item Type

It is the kind of question which measures knowledge, skills or both.

The blueprint necessarily indicates the kinds of skills and the content to be measured by the item types.

The selection of item types should depend on the kinds of skills the test composer measure and not on some personal likes or dislikes for a particular item type.

The use of multiple-choice questions, for example, may make sense for large group testing on knowledge of the mechanics of English. This type of item is not generally appropriate, though, as a direct measure of writing skill. If the intent is to determine whether a student can write a clear coherent essay, then an essay or free-response type is clearly more appropriate than a multiple-choice question type.

Multiple-Choice Item

It is the most common objective-type item. The multiple-choice item is a test question that has a number of alternative choices from which the student is to select the correct answer. It is generally recommended that one uses 4 or 5 choices per question, whenever possible. Using fewer alternatives often results in items with inferior characteristics. The item choices are typically identified on the test copy by the letters A through E.

The stem 

It is the part of the multiple-choice item in which the problem is stated for the student. It can be a question, a set of directions or a statement with an embedded blank.


They are the choices given for the embedded blank in the stem of the multiple-choice item.

The key 

It is the correct choice for the multiple-choice item.


They are the incorrect choices for the multiple-choice item.

General Guidelines for Writing All Types of Items.

These guidelines should be considered when writing all types of items:

  • Write items to measure what students know, not what you know, or what they do not know.
  • Avoid humorous items. Classroom testing is very important and humorous items may cause students to either not take the exam seriously or become confused or anxious.
  • Each item should be as short and verbally uncomplicated as possible. Give as much context as necessary to answer the question, but do not include superfluous information. Be careful not to test reading ability to be able to answer the test item.
  • Keep each item independent from other items. Don’t give the answer away to another item.
  • Try to test a different point in each question.
  • Avoid items based on personal opinions unless the opinion is qualified by evidence or a reference to the source of the opinion (e.g., According to the author of this passage, . . .).

Consider the Following When Reviewing All Types of Items:

  • Whether the items as a whole measure knowledge or skills which are worthwhile and appropriate for the students who will be tested.
  • Is there a better item to test what any item tests?
  • Whether the items are of the appropriate level of difficulty for the students who will be tested.

Guidelines for Writing Multiple-Choice Test Items.

The following are some guidelines that you should use for preparing multiple-choice test items.

  • The entire stem must always precede the alternatives and it should contain the problem and any clarifications.
  • Avoid negatively stated stems.
  • If an omission occurs in the stem, it should appear near the end of the stem and not at the beginning.
  • Use only correct grammar in the stem and alternatives.
  • Avoid repeating words between the stem and key. You can do that, however, to make distractors more attractive.
  • Avoid wording directly from a reading passage or use of stereotyped phrasing in the key.
  • Try to avoid “all of the above” as the last option. If a student can eliminate any of the other choices, this choice can be automatically eliminated as well.
  • To test understanding of a term or concept, present the term in the stem followed by definitions or descriptions in the alternatives.
  • Do not use “none of the above” as the last option when the correct answer is simply the best answer among the choices offered.
  • Avoid terms such as “always” or “never,” as they generally signal incorrect choices.

Guidelines for good alternatives

  • Use a logical sequence for alternatives (e.g., temporal sequence, length of the choice). If two alternatives are very similar (cognitively or visually), they should be placed next to one another to allow students to compare them more easily.
  • Make all incorrect alternatives (i.e., distractors) plausible and attractive. It is often useful to use popular misconceptions and frequent mistakes as distractors.
  • Make all alternatives grammatically consistent with the stem.
  • Item distractors should include only correct forms and vocabulary that actually exist in the language.
  • Use 4 or 5 alternatives in each item.
  • If one or more alternatives are partially correct, ask for the “best” answer.
  • Alternatives should not overlap in meaning or be synonymous with one another.
  • All alternatives should be homogeneous in content, form, and grammatical structure.
  • The length, explicitness, and technical information in each alternative should be parallel so as not to give away the correct answer.

Consider the Following When Reviewing Multiple-Choice Question

Consider whether the stem:

  • presents a clearly defined problem or task to the student,
  • contains unnecessary information,
  • could be more simply, clearly or concisely.

Consider whether the alternatives:

  • are parallel in structure,
  • fit logically and grammatically with the stem,
  • could be more simply, clearly or concisely,
  • are so inclusive that they logically eliminate any other option from being a possible answer.

Consider whether the key

  • is the best answer among the set of options for the item,
  • actually, answers the question posed in the stem,
  • is too obvious relative to the other alternatives.

Consider whether the distractors

  • contain one or more items a student can consider as a correct answer,
  • are plausible enough to be attractive to students who are low achievers
  • contain one or more that can call attention to the key.

Guidelines for Writing Essay Test Items.

Essay items are useful when students have to show their writing ability. This type of item, however, is difficult to score reliably and can require a significant amount of time to be graded.

Grading is often affected by the verbal fluency in the answer, handwriting, presence or lack of spelling errors, grammar used, and the subjective judgments of the grader.

Training of graders can require a substantial amount of time and needs to be repeated at frequent intervals throughout the grading.

The following guidelines may be useful in developing and grading essay questions:

  • The shorter the answer required for a given essay item, generally the better. Factors such as verbal fluency, spelling, etc., have less of an opportunity to influence the grader. Help the students focus their answers by giving them a starting sentence for their essay.
  • Make sure questions are sharply focused on a single issue. Do not give either the student or the grader too much freedom in determining what the answer should be.

Guidelines for Grading Essay Tests.

Because of their subjective nature, essay exams are difficult to grade.

The following guidelines are helpful for grading essay exams in a consistent and meaningful way.

  • Construct a model answer for each item and award a point for each essential element of the model answer. This should help minimize the subjective effects of grading.
  • Essay items must be graded anonymously if at all possible in order to reduce the subjectivity of the graders. That is, graders should not be informed as to the identity of the students whose papers they are grading.
  • Grade a single essay item at a time. This helps the grader maintain a single set of criteria for awarding points to the response. In addition, it tends to reduce the influence of the student’s previous performance on other items.
  • Unless it is a test of language mechanics, do not take off credit for poor handwriting, spelling errors, poor grammar, failure to punctuate properly, etc.
  • Ideally, there should be two graders for each item. A third-grader must resolve any disagreements between the two graders. Normally, this third-grader is the head grader or course instructor.

Guidelines for Test Construction.

The following are general rules, and guidelines for assembling test forms. When reviewing a test prior to administering, verify that the test conforms with the following test construction guidelines.

Test Construction Guidelines for Multiple-Choice Tests.

  • Set the number of items so that at least 95 per cent of the students can answer all items.
  • The correct choice should appear about an equal number of times in each response position.
  • Do not use any pattern of correct responses, e.g., A, B, C, D. E, etc.
  • Write directions to students on the test to indicate whether you permit guessing or not.

Test Construction Guidelines for Essay Tests.

  • All students must take the same items. Do not give them a chance to choose which items they want to answer. Meaningful comparisons normally can be made only if all students take the same test.

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