Using a taxonomy of differential step functioning to improve the interpretation of DIF in polytomous items: An illustration

Randall D. Penfield, Karina Alvarez, Okhee Lee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


The assessment of differential item functioning (DIF) in polytomous items addresses between-group differences in measurement properties at the item level, but typically does not inform which score levels may be involved in the DIF effect. The framework of differential step functioning (DSF) addresses this issue by examining between-group differences in the measurement properties at each step underlying the polytomous response variable. The pattern of the DSF effects across the steps of the polytomous response variable can assume several different forms, and the different forms can have different implications for the sensitivity of DIF detection and the final interpretation of the causes of the DIF effect. In this article we propose a taxonomy of DSF forms, establish guidelines for using the form of DSF to help target and guide item content review and item revision, and provide procedural rules for using the frameworks of DSF and DIF in tandem to yield a comprehensive assessment of between-group measurement equivalence in polytomous items.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)61-78
Number of pages18
JournalApplied Measurement in Education
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2009


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology

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