Background: Differential item functioning (DIF) exists when test item responses by members of different demographic groups are statistically different when controlling for ability. DIF may indicate item bias. Our objective was to determine whether items from the Italian Mini-mental State Examination (MMSE) had DIF related to educational attainment, age, gender and occupation. We were also interested in exploring the significance of DIF in screening tests.
Methods: In a two-stage study from Granarolo, Italy, residents over age 61 (n = 495) were evaluated with the Italian MMSE. Those with MMSE scores of 28 or lower were further evaluated for dementia. MMSE results were coded in 10 item bundles. We used ordinal logistic regression to determine whether item bundles had DIF.
Results: Six of the 10 MMSE item bundles had DIF in educational attainment subgroups. Four of these six bundles also had DIF related to age. Items that required literacy were much harder for those with lower educational attainment.
Conclusions: DIF related to education appeared at as few as 3 years of formal schooling. These findings suggest cautious interpretation of data from studies using the Italian MMSE in populations with heterogeneous educational backgrounds. DIF is especially troublesome for two-stage studies that use screening tests.