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Norm-Referenced vs. Criterion-Referenced Testing

You may have had an experience where you took a test for a class, and the instructor showed you the class’s results afterward. The results probably mapped out into the infamous “bell-shaped curve”, with a few people scoring on the low end of the curve, the majority clustering in the middle, and a few people scoring on the high end. What you may not have known is that this is a normal distribution found in norm-referenced testing.

Norm-referenced tests (or NRTs) compare an examinee’s performance to that of other examinees. Standardized examinations such as the SAT are norm-referenced tests. The goal is to rank the set of examinees so that decisions about their opportunity for success (e.g. college entrance) can be made.

Criterion-referenced tests (CRTs) differ in that each examinee’s performance is compared to a predefined set of criteria or a standard. The goal of these tests is to determine whether or not the candidate has demonstrated mastery of a certain skill or set of skills. These results are usually “pass” or “fail” and are used in making decisions about job entry, certification, or licensure. A national board medical exam is an example of a CRT. Either the examinee has the skills to practice the profession, in which case he or she is licensed, or does not.

ALTA’s exams, which measure the candidate’s performance against pre-defined criteria (the performance levels), are also an example of criterion-referenced tests. Based on the passing level set by ALTA or the client, the results can then be used to determine whether or not the candidate meets the performance requirements of the job from a language standpoint.

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