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Norm-Referenced Achievement Tests (page 3)

— National Center for Fair and Open Testing
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

Can all the children score above average?

Politicians often call for all students to score above the national average. This is not possible.
NRTs are constructed so that half the population is below the mid-point or average score. Expecting all students to be above the fiftieth percentile is like expecting all teams in a basketball league to win more than half their games. However, because the tests are used for years and because schools teach to them, there are times when far more than half the students score above average.

Why use norm-referenced tests?

To compare students, it is often easiest to use a norm-referenced test because they were created to rank test-takers. If there are limited places (such as in a "Gifted and Talented" program) and choices have to be made, it is tempting to use a test constructed to rank students, even if the ranking is not very meaningful and keeps out some qualified children.

NRT's are a quick snapshot of some of the things most people expect students to learn. They are relatively cheap and easy to administer. If they were only used as one additional piece of information and not much importance was put on them, they would not be much of a problem.

The dangers of using norm-referenced tests

Many mistakes can be made by relying on test scores to make educational decisions. Every major maker of NRTs tells schools not to use them as the basis for making decisions about retention, graduation or replacement. The testmakers know that their tests are not good enough to use that way.

The testing profession, in its Standards for Educational and Psychological Measurement, states, "In elementary or secondary education, a decision or characterization that will have a major impact on a test taker should not automatically be made on the basis of a single test score."

Any one test can only measure a limited part of a subject area or a limited range of important human abilities. A "reading" test may measure only some particular reading "skills," not a full range of the ability to understand and use texts. Multiple-choice math tests can measure skill in computation or solving routine problems, but they are not good for assessing whether students can reason mathematically and apply their knowledge to new, real-world problems.

Most NRTs focus too heavily on memorization and routine procedures. Mutiple-choice and short-answer questions do not measure most knowledge that students need to do well in college, qualify for good jobs, or be active and informed citizens. Tests like these cannot show whether a student can write a research paper, use history to help understand current events, understand the impact of science on society, or debate important issues. They don't test problem-solving, decision-making, judgement, or social skills.

Tests often cause teachers to overemphasize memorization and de-emphasize thinking and application of knowledge. Since the tests are very limited, teaching to them narrows instruction and weakens curriculum. Making test score gains the definition of "improvement" often guarantees that schooling becomes test coaching. As a result, students are deprived of the quality education they deserve.

Norm-referenced tests also can lower academic expectations. NRTs support the idea that learning or intelligence fits a bell curve. If educators believe it, they are more likely to have low expectations of students who score below average.

Schools should not use NRTs

The damage caused by using NRTs is far greater than any possible benefits the tests provide. The main purpose of NRTs is to rank and sort students, not to determine whether students have learned the material they have been taught. They do not measure anywhere near enough of what students should learn. They have very harmful effects on curriculum and instruction. In the end, they provide a distorted view of learning that then causes damage to teaching and learning.

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