Norm-Referenced Assessment: Everything You Need to Know

Refers to an extremely traditional evaluation type where the standard is norm-referenced assessments and students’ results are compared to one another. Typically, the ‘norm group’ or larger group is a massive sample representing a diverse and broad cross-section of students. Such a group could include students of the same class, students who took the same course last year, or students from other colleges and universities. Schools, districts, students, or even states are compared or rank-ordered with respect to the norm group. The goal of a norm-referenced assessment is generally to sort students and not assess their achievement toward some performance criterion. In other words, a norm-referenced assessment aims to compare an individual’s performance to what is normal for other people like him or her.

A norm-referenced assessment can be considered similar to a race. When a runner finishes third in a race, the result doesn’t tell anything objectively about what the runner did. It doesn’t tell if the participant completed the race in 30 minutes or 30 seconds. What’s known is that the runner finished the race after two other runners and sooner than every other participant. Now, if a teacher decides to conduct a norm-referenced math test in her class, she will need to compare students to what is normal for that class, grade, or age. Some examples of norm-referenced tests are the IQ tests, SAT, and tests graded on a curve. Whenever a test evaluates the participants based on a percentile rank, it’s a norm-referenced test. Thus, if candidate A scores at the 80th percentile, it means that A scored better than 80% of people in his group.

With norm-referenced assessment, it’s possible to compensate for any mistakes that could have occurred while designing the measurement tool. For example, what if the math test in the example discussed above was too easy, and everybody did well in it? In case it’s a norm-referenced test, it wouldn’t be a problem as the teacher won’t be looking at the students’ actual scores but how well they did with respect to other students in the same class, grade, or age.

Based on the construct of norm-referenced assessments, it’s expected that 50% of students rank below average. It is, therefore, not surprising that norm-referenced assessments have been subjected to severe criticism over the years.

Although they may provide some important information, norm-referenced assessments don’t significantly help students in their quest for academic excellence. Instead, they are more accurate at predicting a school’s socio-economic strata than the real academic potential of students or the efficacy of their educators.  

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