Cut-Off Score: Everything You Need to Know

This term refers to the lowest score obtainable to either pass an exam or gain sufficient knowledge in a subject area. From high-stakes tests, standardized tests to other forms of assessment, cut-off scores are widely used to evaluate students. In some cases, there may be multiple cut-off scores that symbolize tiered levels of proficiency, such as advanced, proficient, or basic. In education, one may find cut-off scores being applied in licensing exams and certifications to decide if educators, teachers, and other school staff are professionally “qualified.”

When creating and grading tests or other assignments, educators typically use cut-off scores that depend heavily on their individual professional judgment. The criteria used to decide cut-off scores could differ extensively. For instance, historical precedent is often used to decide what the cut-off scores would be in exams and assignments. In several schools, a score of 70 – for example – has long been considered a “passing” score. This cut-off score isn’t determined by the test content, how it was designed, or what the score signifies in terms of academic achievement.

Sometimes, cut-off scores are determined by groups of experts (and not individual educators) based on collective opinion and informed judgments. For large-scale standardized tests, sophisticated psychometric methods are typically used to decide the cut-off scores. However, whatever be the method or approach, it’s impossible to exhibit any particular cut-off score as unequivocally “correct.” In other words, cut-off scores are professional judgments that sit somewhere between objective and subjective, art and science, and reasoned and arbitrary.

The process of determining the cut-off scores for standardized tests administered to massive populations of students by national and state organizations is different. Testing companies in charge of ACT, SAT, or NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) typically use a process called standard setting (for criterion-referenced tests) for deciding the cut-off marks.

The process involves recruiting a group of experts by the test developer to form a standard-setting panel. The recruited group would include teachers from a relevant field of content or psychometricians. This panel will use one or more research-based methods developed by academicians and psychometricians for setting testing standards and establishing cut-off scores. Typically, the process would involve reviewing test items, determining the difficulty level for each, and using collective opinion and a statistical process. This way, a solitary cut-off score or a series of cut-off scores (corresponding to varying levels of proficiency) would be established.

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