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December 22, 2016

What is the Right Number of Test Questions?

*This post was originally written in 2016. Click HERE to check out our new test length article using our updated data set.*

When you sit down to create a quiz, test or even an assignment, what is your approach? Do you start with a list of topics to cover or do you start with a question type such as essay or short answer and develop the questions based on the form?  What is the right number of test questions?

While classroom teachers (and probably more so the students!) have spent time pondering this, they aren’t the only ones considering test length and time. Last spring, the PARCC standardized tests got a relook  from 2015 to 2016 when PARCC administrators re-examined the assessments and reduced testing times by 90 minutes across all grades. The goal was “shorter and fewer,” which would yield equally accurate, but quicker results.

With over 50,000 teachers and 1.15 million student accounts using Pear Assessment (formerly, Edulastic) for assessments, we have access to quite a bit of data when it comes to trends in testing. From question type to number of questions, each quarter we aggregate the information to analyze what our teachers are using and how we can help make Edulastic better for them. But, for the educator who has ever wondered what is the appropriate test length, you might also find our most recent data interesting as it seems to support the PARCC approach of “short and sweet.”

Our data is based on assessments that were completed by five or more students. The assessments are across all subjects and include data from grades K-12. Here is a breakdown of the information:

Question Count by Subject Matter

The average number of test questions based on subject.  The highlights include:

  • Math 14
  • ELA  10
  • Science  18
  • Social Studies 19
Qs by Subject

Question Count by Grade

The average number of test questions used based on grade.


Interesting Trends/Facts

  • The average question count remains relatively similar across grades 1st-12th but there can be seen a slight increase in the question count with increasing grades.
  • Overall, across all grades and subjects, the average test question count is 10, the second favorite number of questions is 5.
  • A major contributor in determining the question count for an assignment is its assessment type. Standardized assessments tend to have higher number of questions with favorite being about 15 questions while a class assessment (such as a quiz or chapter test) the favorite count goes to 10.

“Overall, across all grades and subjects, the average test question count is 10."

Time is the Key Indicator

The one category our data doesn’t address is time allotted for each assessment. When preparing an assessment, the key factor in determining question count and type is how much time the test period will be.  While this seems sort of obvious, there are many factors involved such as complexity of content, question types and age of student.  Each of these can make the question of “how many” a nebulous one to definitively answer.  

The Eberly Center of Testing Excellence at Carnegie Mellon University recommends the educator time themselves taking the exam he or she wrote and then triple that time for students.  Without this crucial step, the Eberly Center poses, the student who is under time pressure “may make mistakes that have nothing to do with the extent of their learning.”

Similarly, Kansas Curriculum Center’s David Clay, in a guide developed for Kansas State Dept of Education,  takes the “triple time” formula and adds a really useful set of guidelines for ensuring you have the right question/time ratio.  He writes:

“To determine how much time the student will need to take the test use the following:

  • 30 seconds per true-false item
  • 60 seconds per multiple choice item
  • 120 seconds per short answer item
  • 10-15 minutes per essay question
  • 5 to 10 minutes to review the work
  • Or, allow triple the amount of time it takes you to complete the exam.”

In an effort to bring it down to a simple approach, when you are using a tool like Pear Assessment, it is quite easy —  and tempting —  to create assessments with numerous questions.  But based on the factors of time and efficiency, the best move may be to keep in mind PARCC’s minimalist approach while you are taking your own test.  

Ready to go? Sign into Pear Assessment and start working on your next assessment with these tips in mind.


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Pear Assessment Team

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