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Adjusting the passing scores for gearing up for safety: production agriculture safety training for youth curriculum test instruments.


Established methods for setting standards (passing scores) of exams for programs that provide certification, placement, or diplomas have been used for decades (Cizek, 1993; Mills & Melican, 1988). These methods mainly involve using expert review and guidance to establish minimum passing scores (Mills & Melican, 1988). However, in many cases, little consideration is given to revision or adjustment of these criteria once established (Mills & Melican, 1988). Employing techniques to examine differences between established passing scores, set by subject matter experts, and empirical data, gathered from administration of the tests, can provide increased accuracy of the testing and decision process and merits attention by test developers and test program managers (American Educational Research Association [AERA], American Psychological Association [APA], and National Council on Measurement in Education [NCME], 1999; Beuk, 1984; De Gruijter, 1985; Geisinger, 1991; Mills & Melican, 1988; O'Neill, Marks, & Reynolds, 2005; Wendt & Kenny, 2007). The results can assist in providing necessary validity evidence for scores to justify inferences and decisions based on those scores in many types of training or certification exams. Programs such a nursing certification do revisit their standards for passing (e.g., Wendt & Kenny, 2007). However, in other areas such as professional certification programs (engineering, teaching, achievement testing), there is a lack of documentation as to how and on what review schedule such work should be conducted. The straightforward nature of the method employed here may be a valuable tool for other sectors wishing to continue to gather validity evidence for the inferences based on their testing programs.

Passing scores are typically judgments and decisions made by a group of subject matter experts. Adjustments to established scoring criteria should be a judgment of experts as well, even if no change occurs. Minimum passing scores for the Gearing Up for Safety: Production Agriculture Safety Training for Youth curriculum (Gearing Up for Safety) were set with widely used and established procedures through efforts of subject matter experts (French, Breidenbach, Field, & Tormoehlen, 2007; French, Field, & Tormoehlen, 2006, 2007). While providing a research-based curriculum designed to assist in identifying youth who are ready to operate agricultural tractors and machinery, the Gearing Up for Safety curriculum also meets current requirements of the Agricultural Hazardous Occupation Orders (AgHOs) (Ortega, 2003).

The AgHOs establish national restrictions concerning employment of youth to work on non-family farms, but are vague concerning methods to adequately assess youth readiness, including minimum curriculum content, test construction, and passing requirements (French, Field et al., 2006, 2007; U.S. Department of Labor, 1971, 2007).

During development stages of the Gearing Up for Safety curriculum, desired core competencies, curriculum content including new subject matter not addressed by the 48-year-old law, an assessment process, and minimum passing standards were established (French, Breidenbach et al., 2007; French, Field et al., 2006, 2007). The curriculum's assessment process was designed to include three major stages in order to evaluate both cognitive and hands-on abilities to perform certain agricultural tasks considered hazardous (French, Breidenbach et al., 2007; French, Field et al., 2006, 2007; Ortega, 2003). The first stage of the assessment process culminates with a 70 question written exam (Written Exam) designed to evaluate the participants' level of knowledge in the areas of general farm safety, machine safety, and tractor safety. The internal consistency reliability of the exam scores has been high across studies (e.g., 0.87, 0.93). The second stage concludes with a pre-operational exam (Pre-Operational Exam) that evaluates participants' knowledge of basic tractor components and ability to perform basic preoperational checks of key components and systems. The final stage of testing is an operational exam (Operational Exam) that requires participants to operate a tractor and two-wheel trailer through a standard tractor driving course. Successful completion of the three part assessment process allows participants to be certified under the provisions of the AgHOs (French, Breidenbach et al., 2007; French, Field et al., 2006, 2007; Ortega, 2003).

Developers of the Gearing Up for Safety exams used a group of subject matter experts to set passing standards in 2006. However, there was not a follow-up on these passing scores until now due to a need to allow the process to be in place for a period of time to collect the needed performance data. Given data are now available on actual examinee performance, the purpose of this study was to determine whether the passing scores for each of the Gearing Up for Safety exams needed to be adjusted to meet the demands of the program. Specifically, this study examined the passing scores for all three of the Gearing Up for Safety test instruments through a 'compromise' adjustment procedure (Beuk, 1984). The essence of this method is to compare the set passing scores with scores from completed exams for examinees seeking certification. This comparison helps to determine if the passing rate is in accord with what is expected given the set standard by the panel of experts. Results of the procedure provide data that the expert panel uses to evaluate and discuss if an adjustment to the standard is needed. This method has successfully been applied to other areas where certification is required (e.g., nursing, Wendt & Kenny, 2007). A secondary purpose of this study was to provide an example of a method that could be employed in other areas of agriculture or other sectors that may require certification. Continually gathering validity evidence for inferences based on test scores helps to ensure good, accurate decisions about individuals.


Development stages of the Gearing Up for Safety curriculum utilized subject matter experts in the areas of agricultural safety and health from academic, professional, industrial, and private entities (Bullock, 2006; French, Breidenbach et al., 2007; French, Field et al., 2006, 2007; Kingman, Yoder, Hodge, Ortega, and Field, 2005; Ortega, 2003). Input from these professionals produced non-arbitrary passing standards and strengthened the foundation on which to build the remainder of the program (French, Breidenbach et al., 2007; French, Field et al., 2006, 2007; Kingman et al., 2005; Ortega, 2003). These experts also provided an important element in the adjustment process employed to review the appropriateness of the passing scores due to their ability to make informed decisions about youth and tractor safety (Beuk, 1984).

The adjustment procedure involved four main steps to graphically plot the data and perform the adjustment:

1. Collect, average, and plot mean values of passing scores and rates set by subject matter experts.

2. Plot a line using standard deviations of the values collected in Step 1.

3. Plot examinee success rates on the exam based on standards set by subject matter experts.

4. Perform adjustment.

Each of these steps is discussed in greater detail in the results section. To illustrate the results of each step, tables provide the summary information for each test instrument. However, as the procedure was identical for each test instrument, only a figure representing each step of the Written Exam is presented. The resulting graphs for all three exams, following completion of all four steps, are presented at the end of the results section.

Data were collected from subject matter experts in two separate meetings, each lasting approximately 1.5 days. During the first meeting, a standard setting session was conducted for the Gearing Up for Safety exams. Panel members' opinions of the passing score for all three exams were collected and are summarized in Table 1 as a mean (k) for each (French, Field et al., 2006, 2007). During the second meeting, panel members were asked to provide ideal passing rates (found in Table 1 as mean v) for each of the three exams based on previously established passing scores. The panel was not informed of any empirical testing results before this data was gathered as per recommendations (Beuk, 1984).

Participants for adjustment procedure

In accord with the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, the expert panel consisted of members who represented many years of experience in this area and had a variety of backgrounds that represented the farm safety field in general. The complete panel consisted of 16 members. Across rating sessions, the number dropped to 13 due to travel schedules or events beyond the committee's control. However, the expertise represented on the panel was not compromised.

The panel was comprised of 6 professors in the safety and agriculture area, 2 insurance specialists, 2 extension representatives, 2 professionals who conduct agricultural safety programs for youth, 2 professionals who publish safety materials for training, and 2 parents of youth receiving training. As evidenced by panel membership, diverse views that captured the various stakes involved in youth safety in agricultural environments were represented.

Participants for Plotting Examinee Success Rate Empirical data needed for plotting the examinee success rate were collected in 200809 while gathering evidence for validity with each of the three tests. Examinees in the study were from Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Washington. The population consisted of 455 high school and 4-H students where 292 (81.3%) of the students were in grades 9-11. There were 179 (48.1%) 14 or 15 years of age, which is the age range for AgHOs exemptions, 271 (73.4%) males, 98 (26.6%) females, and 338 (94.5%) were of Caucasian ethnicity.



Figures 1 - 4 below represent the four steps outlined previously in the procedure section. These four figures represent the procedure and results for the Written Exam only. Explanations for specific steps and respective figures will help guide the reader through what was conducted to arrive at the adjustment.

According to standards set by the subject matter experts, 82% of examinees should successfully complete the Written Exam with the passing score set at 70%. These data, collected from the panel, are graphically represented in Figure 1 at point M.

After summarizing the average passing scores (k) and rates (v) from panel members, the standard deviations for both the passing score and passing rate were determined, [s.sub.k] and [s.sub.v] respectively, from the same data set, per recommendations (Beuk, 1984). See Table 2 for these values with each exam. Standard deviation values were used to determine the slope of a line, with slope [s.sub.v]/[s.sub.k]. In Figure 2 the line with positive slope was plotted in addition to point M from Step 1 (Beuk, 1984).


Table 3 summarizes the empirical passing rates for all three tests. The column labeled 'Interval' contains values representing a theoretical passing score. Passing rate columns contain the rate of participants who would pass based on the theoretical passing score for each test. For the Written Exam, if the passing rate were set to 20%, approximately 99.1% of the population used for this study would pass. If the passing score were set to 30%, 98.2% would pass. If the passing score were set to 40%, 90.6% would pass, and so on. Values for the Pre-Operational and Operational Exams were summarized in a similar manner. Intervals were chosen based on the resulting curve that captures all participants' data and provides a smooth curve with which to perform the adjustment.

In Figure 3, the percentage of examinees who were successful (the passing rate y) was plotted as a decreasing function of the theoretical passing test scores (the passing score x). A basic function in Excel was used to plot the curve of passing rate values against the interval of theoretical passing scores (see Table 3 for values associated with each exam). The number (N) for each test instrument varied based on successful completion of each stage of testing by the participants. The resulting curve intersected the line that was plotted previously and was also used for the next step in the procedure.


In Figure 4, the point (i) where the sloped line intersects the curve is the area where the adjustment occurs. This new point results with a recommended adjustment to the passing score with the corresponding passing rate based on the new passing score.


Figure 5 and Figure 6 show the result of the Beuk procedure for the other two exams. Values (panel and empirical) from each exam were used to perform the procedure as with the Written Exam. As can be seen in the graphs, location of the points, axes, slope of the line, and shape of the empirical data curve are respective to each test resulting in unique outcomes.



Table 4 summarizes the suggested changes for all three tests in the Gearing Up for Safety curriculum. Values from before and after the procedure are included.

Panel Discussion

The conclusions of the Beuk procedure were brought back before the subject matter experts for review. As with other stages of development for the curriculum, the panel was given the directive to consider adjusting the passing standards for the exams based upon the findings of this study. There were three choices for the panel regarding each of the three test instruments: (a) accept changes as suggested by the procedure, (b) reject changes suggested by the procedure, or (c) accept a change other than one suggested by the procedure. The panel concluded that both the Written and Pre-Operational Exams should retain their original passing scores and voted to reject the suggested change, which would lower the acceptable passing scores. This was due to the consensus that as thresholds in the curriculum, the standard should be higher to more accurately identify participants who need more preparation or are not ready to progress through the remainder of the program. The adjustment procedure suggested that the Operational Exam's score basically remain the same. The panel, however, concluded that the passing score should be adjusted from 'less than 20 infractions' to 'less than 15 infractions' on the premise that participants in the final stage of testing should be able to meet a stricter standard. This decision was also based on reviewing empirical data and discussing participants' performance during the Operational Exam. Concerning the passing scores for the Gearing Up for Safety tests, the panel made a final decision of a 70% passing score for the Written Exam, an 85% passing score for the Pre-Operational Exam, and less than 15 infractions allowed for the Operational Exam.


The Gearing Up for Safety curriculum was designed to evaluate the readiness of youth to operate certain types of agricultural equipment as prescribed by the AgHOs. Participants' progression through the testing process is determined by successfully achieving the established passing scores for each of the three tests administered at the conclusion of each stage. The purpose of this study was to examine the appropriateness of those passing scores utilizing a compromise method (Beuk, 1984). While not commonly found in research to date, re-examining passing standards can provide non-arbitrary information with which to strengthen a curriculum's passing standards and provide more validity evidence for the set criteria. More importantly, it serves as an opportunity for the stakeholders to review the testing program and reflect on the passing rate of the candidates completing the program.

Some important points should be made about establishing and adjusting passing standards. First, passing scores should be viewed as 'estimates' since abilities cannot be objectively measured, there is variability of the construct, and panel make-up can produce variability in establishing the score. Thus a 'true' or 'exact' passing score does not exist and periodic review can result in minor changes (O'Neill et al., 2005; Wendt & Kenny, 2007). Second, using only one source of data is not sufficient for score establishment or adjustment as noted in the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing and other research studies (AERA, APA, & NCME, 1999; Cizek, Bunch, & Koons, 2004). Adjustment procedures should involve a balance of expert opinion and empirical data (Beuk, 1984; Mills & Melican, 1988; AERA, APA, & NCME, 1999). When combining more than one source of information and examining a curriculum with a holistic view, developers can come to better conclusions.

Although the group of experts rejected the recommendations for adjusting passing scores (which would have generally reduced the needed achievement level), there is tremendous value in the procedure. Through more informed evaluation of established scores, the panel and researchers were able to review the empirical performance of the three test instruments as a curriculum package for the first time since the Gearing Up for Safety curriculum began over a decade ago. Passing standards, established from previous research, were also strengthened through research and re-evaluation (French, Field et al., 2006, 2007).

The compromise method (Beuk, 1984) provided a useful comparison of research established passing scores for the Gearing Up for Safety exams and empirical data gathered from administering the test to the target population for this study. In fact, it was an evaluation of a theoretical or even ideal standard to that which occurs in practice with the opportunity to re-adjust that standard. The procedure also confirmed work provided by subject matter experts and decisions made about levels of performance. Further testing should be performed using youth in other areas of the United States and at younger ages to be more representative of a national program. Upon obtaining those results, the compromise procedure should be performed to examine the appropriateness of the scores with a more geographically representative population. While the review did not result in major changes, comparing the original information with the results of this study permitted more informed decisions, resulting in the establishment of more accurate scoring standards. In fact, if the first standard setting process worked well, it could be argued that not making an adjustment through this adjustment study affirms the quality of the first process. This type of evidence adds to the validity argument for the inferences about examinees that are based on the scores from these three exams.

Finally, it should be noted that there has been a general shift, during the past decade, in the social contract that exists between society and the agricultural community. In the past, there has been a much higher tolerance of the practice of children and youth being engaged in certain types of agricultural work. Efforts to promote child safety on farms had focused on discouraging parents from assigning children to certain hazardous tasks. The change in the tolerance of children working in agriculture may have influenced the reluctance of the subject matter experts to lower testing standards for achieving certification for employment under the provisions of the AgHOs. As the resistance to youth being engaged in hazardous agricultural work practices increases due to the relatively higher injury rate for youth in the past, there has been a push towards higher standards as was noted by the consensus of the subject matter experts in this study.

DOI: 10.5032/jae.2012.03001


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Beuk, C. H. (1984). A method for reaching a compromise between absolute and relative standards in examinations. Journal of Educational Measurement, 21(2), 147-152.

Bullock, S. R. (2006). Evaluating the effectiveness of a visually- based farm tractor and machinery safety curriculum compared to a text-based curriculum (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN.

Cizek, G. J. (1993). Reconsidering standards and criteria. Journal of Educational Measurement, 30(2), 93-106.

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WILLIAM BRIAN HOOVER is an Assistant Professor of Agricultural Systems Technology in the Department of Agricultural Science at Murray State University, 213 South Oakley Applied Science, Murray, KY 42071,

BRIAN F. FRENCH is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Counseling Technology at Washington State University, 362 Cleveland Hall, Pullman, WA,

WILLIAM E. FIELD is a Professor of Agricultural & Biological Engineering at Purdue University, 225 South University Street, West Lafayette, IN 47907,

ROGER L. TORMOEHLEN is a Professor and Head of the Youth Development and Agricultural Education Department at Purdue University, 615 West State Street, West Lafayette, IN 47907,
Table 1
Mean Values of Passing Score and Passing Rate Percentages Provided
by Subject Matter Experts

                    Written   Pre-Operational     Operational
                     Exam          Exam               Exam

k (passing score)     70%           85%         < 20 infractions

v (passing rate)      82%           84%               82%

Table 2
Standard Deviation Values of Passing Score and Passing Rates
Provided by Subject Matter Experts

                    Written Exam   Pre-Op Exam   Operational Exam

[s.sub.k]                8              4               9

[s.sub.v]                12            13               12

Slope ([s.sub.v]/       12/8          13/4             12/9

Table 3
Summary of Empirical Passing Rates per Interval
Based on Passing Score

Written                      Operational
Passing Rate    Interval     Passing Rate

99.11              20            100
98.23              30           99.72
90.56              40           99.72
77.58              50           99.45
58.11              60           98.10
32.15              70           96.20
8.84               80           95.93
0                  90           93.22
0                  100          91.59

Interval          Rate         Interval

10                4.65            0
15                15.50           1
20                30.23           2
25                40.31           3
30                49.61           4
35                60.47           5
40                68.99           6
45                74.42           7
50                78.29           8
55                86.05           9
60                88.37           10
65                89.92           11
70                89.92           12
75                90.70           13
80                93.02           14
85                93.80           15
90                93.80           16
95                93.80           17
100               93.80           18
                  95.35           19
                  99.22           20

Table 4
Summary of Passing Scores and Passing Rates Representing both Original
and Recommended Changes from the Adjustment Procedure.

          Written Exam             Pre-Operational Exam

                     Recommended              Recommended
          Original     Change      Original     Change

Passing     70%          63%         85%          81%

Passing     84%          71%         90%          62%

              Operational Exam

           Original       Change

Passing       <20           <19
Score     infractions   infractions

Passing       82%           81%
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Author:Hoover, William Brian; French, Brian F.; Field, William E.; Tormoehlen, Roger L.
Publication:Journal of Agricultural Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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