The Edvocate’s Guide to Cut-Off Scores

A cut-off score is the lowest possible score on an exam or another form of assessment that a learner must earn to either “pass” or be considered “proficient.” In some cases, tests may have several cut-off scores representing tiered proficiency levels, such as basic, proficient, or advanced. Cut-off scores can also be applied in certification and licensing exams that are used to decide whether educators and other school staff are professionally “qualified.”

Whether cut-off scores are set by personal educators on course exams or decided by groups of experts utilizing sophisticated psychometric methods on large-scale standardized tests, all cut-off scores are informed judgments based on either personal or collective opinion.

In other words, cut-off scores are judgments that fall on a continuum between art and science, subjective and objective.

For standardized tests developed by testing corporations and administered to large populations of learners by states and national organizations—such as the SAT, ACT, or National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), for example—cut-off scores are decided through a process generally called standard setting (for criterion-referenced tests) or norming (for norm-referenced tests).

Determining the cut-off score

A test developer will create a standard-setting panel in a typical standard-setting process by recruiting a group of experts, such as psychometricians (specialists in the science of educational measurement) or educators from a relevant content area.

The panel will then utilize one or more research-based methods developed by psychometricians and academics to set testing standards and determine cut-off scores. The process usually entails reviewing test items (questions, problems, assignments), determining levels of difficulty for each item, and utilizing a statistical process, based on collective opinion, to establish a cut-off score or a set of cut scores corresponding to distinct levels of “proficiency.”

The nuances of cut-off scores

When educators create and grade tests or other assignments, cut-off scores rely more heavily on personal, professional judgment. Also, the criteria used to decide cut-off scores can vary widely. For instance, historical precedent is often used to establish cut scores for course exams and assignments—e.g., a score of 70 has long been considered a “passing” score in many schools, regardless of the content of the test, how it was designed, or what the score represents in terms of educational achievement.

The exact same passing score of 70 may also be applied to various assessments assessed in distinct ways. For instance, a score of 70 on a several-choice test may be decided to utilize a simple mathematical formula—70 percent of the questions were answered correctly and 30 percent incorrectly.

Yet a grade of 70 on a science project or written essay may mandate a far more nuanced judgment about the content and quality of the work, which might be based on a single educator’s professional opinion, for example, or on clearly defined criteria described in a rubric or scoring guide that several educators utilize to assess learner work more consistently from learner to learner or course to course.

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