Testing 104: Standardized tests-Criterion Referenced, or Norm Referenced?

Wait, we’ve just learned what it means for a test to be standardized, but now we hear that there are different types of standardized tests?

Yes! Not all standardized tests are created equally! (Which is a little bit ironic when you stop and think about it.)

Standardized tests can fall into one of two broad categories: criterion referenced standardized tests and norm referenced standardized tests. It is important to know the difference between the two, because each type of standardized test has a different purpose.

The purpose of a criterion referenced test is to find out to what extent any given student has mastered a specific set of criteria. A spelling test is a good example of a criterion referenced test. One student’s test answers are compared to a key of correct answers, and the results show how well the student did on the test. A well written criterion referenced test will show what the student knows, understands, and is able to do with respect to a specific set of criteria.

On the other hand, the purpose of a norm referenced test is to sort; it is designed to take any given set of students, have them take the same test, and, using the results, rank them top to bottom, from highest scoring student to the lowest scoring student compared to each other. The SAT test commonly used for college admissions is a good example of a norm referenced test. The results of a well written norm referenced test will form a perfect bell curve, with a few scores spread out at opposite ends of the curve, and a whole bunch of scores clustered in the middle. The results of this type of test are used to rank; to compare how each student did compared to the others within the same group who took the same test. These kinds of tests have their uses, but norm referenced test results are not designed to indicate how much students know, understand, and are able to do.

Luckily, it’s super easy to tell which kind of standardized test is which by simply looking at how the test results are reported.   If the score of the test is reported as a percent score, for example, ” Your child scored 70% (read 70 percent) on the spelling test”, then it is a criterion referenced standardized test. If the score of the test is reported as a percentile ranking, for example, “Your child scored in the 70th %ile (read 70th percentile) for Reading”, then it is a norm referenced standardized test.

So in the realm of standardized tests there are criterion referenced standardized tests and norm referenced standardized tests…two different types of tests, each being necessarily standardized, created for two distinctly different purposes: criterion referenced tests are designed to measure mastery of specific criteria, and norm referenced tests are designed to rank.

So, if I wanted to find out what you now know, understand, and are able to do with each type of standardized test, would the best assessment for the job be a criterion referenced test or a norm referenced test?

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