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Critical Thinking Assessment

Critical thinking assessment (or testing) is a topic often unfortunately postponed until after crucial decisions have been made. Some reasons people have for testing students' critical thinking abilities and dispositions are:
  • diagnosing the levels of students' critical thinking abilities and dispositions, so that teachers can decide what to teach;
  • giving students feedback about their prowess in critical thinking, so that they can decide what to do about it;
  • motivating students to be better critical thinkers;
  • informing teachers about the success of their efforts to teach critical thinking to their students;
  • doing research about critical thinking instructional techniques and materials;
  • providing admissions information and guidance about prospective students; and
  • providing information for holding schools and others accountable for the critical thinking or their students.
These last two reasons lead to what is often called "high-stakes" testing. A particular danger when the last reason is the operating reason is that the unit or person (if it is only one) held accountable might well be only partly responsible, along with a number of other factors, or might be only minimally responsible.

See "Nationwide Testing of Critical Thinking: Vigilance Required" for a discussion of various dangers in critical thinking assessment, as well as general comments about the topic. A later version of this essay appeared in Teaching Philosophy, 31:1 (March, 2008), pp. 1-26.

Also see Critical Thinking Education and Assessment: Can Higher Order Thinking be Tested?which is a book containing recent papers concerned with current topics in critical thinking assessment, edited by Jan Sobocan and Leo Groarke, published in London, Ontario by the Althouse Press in 2009. An essay by Robert Ennis in this book that applies "argument-to-best-explanation" criteria to the question of the validity of critical thinking tests is entitled "Investigating and Assessing Multiple-Choice Critical Thinking Tests".

Available Tests

See "An Annotated List of English-Language Critical Thinking Tests" for a brief introduction to at least most of the well-known available English-language critical thinking tests, as well as some that are not well known.

Two multiple-choice tests for which Robert Ennis is partly responsible (with co-author, Jason Millman) are Cornell Critical Thinking Test, Level X (basically for grades 7-12, though it has been used beyond these limits in both directions), and Cornell Critical Thinking Test, Level Z (for gifted high school students, adults, undergraduates, and graduate students). They are available from The Critical Thinking Company (www.criticalthinking.com) and are less expensive than most.

 The Ennis-Weir Critical Thinking Essay Test and supplementary information about this test are available at no charge. Please be sure to download the supplementary information if you download the test. Your own data could be helpful in future additions to the supplementary information. Please share it with us. This test was discontinued by the publisher. Grading it takes about six minutes per test by a grader competent in critical thinking.

The Cornell Class Reasoning Test and Cornell Conditional Reasoning Test, which are multiple-choice tests of two types of deduction, are available at no charge. Please be clear that these are not comprehensive critical thinking tests, though they assess an important aspect of critical thinkng, assuming that some loosening occurs in strict deduction to fit real situations.

Illinois Critical Thinking Essay Test
by Marguerite Finken and Robert H. Ennis is aimed at high school students, but could be used above and below that level.
Available at no charge. Emphasizes both critical thinking and writing. The issue that was used for test development is “Should the viewing of music videos by young people be regulated?” but a different issue could be used. Provides detailed directions for administering and scoring an argumentative essay for critical thinking and writing (including a detailed rubric).


Two reviews of critical thinking tests in the recent critical thinking literature are:

    Groarke, Leo (2009. What's Wrong with the California Critical Thinking         Skills Test? CT Testing and Accountability. In Sobocan, Jan & Groarke, Leo     (Eds.), (2009), Critical thinking education and assessment: Can higher         order thinking be tested?  London, Ontario: Althouse Press. Pp. 35-54.

    Possin, Kevin (2008). A guide to critical thinking assessment. Teaching         Philosophy, 31:3, 201-228.

Making Your Own Test

If you are making your own critical thinking test, a useful detailed guide in the making of a table of specifications for your test is "The Nature of Critical Thinking: An Outline of Critical Thinking Dispositions and Abilities". See "A Super-Streamlined Conception of Critical Thinking" for a very brief guide and "Critical Thinking: A Streamlined Conception" for a medium-size guide that is accompanied by examples.

For a small number of students, either an open-ended essay test, or a multiple-choice test in which students are asked to defend their choices, are feasible alternatives. The multiple-choice plus written defense avoids the common problems that multiple-choice tests have when written in haste by busy faculty: the existence of various interpretations and misunderstandings of the items by students, and intelligent "test-wise guessing by students. The written justification, when read by the teacher, clarifies the problems and avoids penalizing the students for misunderstandings and crediting them for test-wiseness.

For large numbers of students, especially for "high-stakes" purposes, a large amount of care, trying out of items, and item scrutiny is required for multiple choice items. For essay testing, very careful construction of rubrics to guide grading and training of graders is needed. Both are often best left to professionals, assuming that they are well versed in critical thinking--and the subject-matter area if the test is of critical thinking in a subject.