Criterion and Standards-Referenced Tests
Criterion-referenced tests (CRTs) are intended
to measure how well a person has learned a specific body of knowledge and
skills. Multiple-choice tests most people take to get a driver's license
and on-the-road driving tests are both examples of criterion-referenced
tests. As on most other CRTs, it is possible for everyone to earn a passing
score if they know about driving rules and if they drive reasonably
In contrast, norm-referenced tests (NRTs) are made to compare test takers to each other. On an NRT driving test, test-takers would be compared as to who knew most or least about driving rules or who drove better or worse. Scores would be reported as a percentage rank with half scoring above and half below the mid-point (see NRT fact sheet).
In education, CRTs usually are made to determine whether a student has learned the material taught in a specific grade or course. An algebra CRT would include questions based on what was supposed to be taught in algebra classes. It would not include geometry questions or more advanced algebra than was in the curriculum. Most all students who took algebra could pass this test if they were taught well and they studied enough and the test was well-made.
On a standardized CRT (one taken by students in many schools), the passing or "cut-off" score is usually set by a committee of experts, while in a classroom the teacher sets the passing score. In both cases, deciding the passing score is subjective, not objective. Sometimes cut scores have been set in a way that maximizes the number of low income or minority students who fail the test. A small change in the cut score would not change the meaning of the test but would greatly increase minority pass rates.
Some CRT's, such as many state tests, are not based on a specific curriculum, but on a more general idea of what students might be taught. Therefore, they may not match the curriculum. For example, a state grade 10 math test might include areas of math which some students have not studied.
A recent variation of criterion-referenced testing is
"standards-referenced testing" or "standards based assessment." Many states
and districts have adopted content standards (or "curriculum
frameworks") which describe what students should know and be able to do in
different subjects at various grade levels. They also have performance
standards that define how much of the content standards students
should know to reach the "basic" or "proficient" or "advanced" level in the
subject area. Tests are then based on the standards and the results are
reported in terms of these "levels," which, of course, represent human
judgement. In some states, performance standards have been steadily
increased, so that students continually have to know more to meet the same
Educators often disagree about the quality of a given set of standards. Standards are supposed to cover the important knowledge and skills students should learn -- they define the "big picture." State standards should be well-written and reasonable. Some state standards have been criticized for including too much, for being too vague, for being ridiculously difficult, for undermining higher quality local curriculum and instruction, and for taking sides in educational and political controversies. If the standards are flawed or limited, tests based on them also will be. In any event, standards enforced by state tests will have -- and are meant to have -- a strong impact on local curriculum and instruction.
Even if standards are of high quality, it is important to know how well a particular test actually matches the standards. In particular, are all the important parts of the standards measured by the test? Often, many important topics or skills are not assessed.
A major reason for this is that most state exams still rely almost entirely on multiple-choice and short-answer questions. Such tests cannot measure many important kinds of learning, such as the ability to conduct and report on a science experiment, to analyze and interpret information to present a reasonable explanation of the causes of the Civil War, to do an art project or a research paper, or to engage in serious discussion or make a public presentation (see fact sheet on multiple-choice tests). A few standards-based exams have gone beyond multiple-choice and short-answer, but even then they may not be balanced or complete measures of the standards.
Reprinted with the permission of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
- Coats and Car Seats: A Lethal Combination?
- Kindergarten Sight Words List
- Signs Your Child Might Have Asperger's Syndrome
- Child Development Theories
- 10 Fun Activities for Children with Autism
- Social Cognitive Theory
- Why is Play Important? Social and Emotional Development, Physical Development, Creative Development
- GED Math Practice Test 1
- Problems With Standardized Testing
- The Homework Debate