Reformer ToolboxLogin

CancelLost your password?

Criterion-based v. Norm-referenced: Which testing model offers parents relevant information?

• Patricia Levesque

This is the seventh installment in a series by ExcelinEd CEO Patricia Levesque, designed to give states guidance on how they can use the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to advance student achievement.

Read previous posts: 

  1. School Accountability Under ESSA
  2. Focus School Accountability on Results
  3. Balancing Proficiency and Growth in School Accountability
  4. Developing Honest, Transparent and Effective Accountability Systems
  5. Should Attendance, Discipline & School Safety Influence School Report Cards?
  6. High School Accountability & Advanced Coursework


Little girl sitting on the floor and reading books in library

A student takes an end-of-year reading test to assess her mastery of state standards.

So now comes the question: How do we use the results to determine whether she is making adequate academic progress?

There are two approaches.

Norm-referenced models rate her progress by comparing her scores and improvement from last year to other students across the state. That she moves up in the percentile rankings would seem to indicate progress.

Criterion-based models take a different approach. They measure the student’s progress from year to year with a clearly-defined goal in mind—ensuring she has mastered the standards and is on track for college or a career after graduation.

That makes the criterion-based model the better choice. It measures what really matters, not simply whether a student is improving more than her peers.

The norm-referenced approach divides students into three camps: those making more progress relative to others, those making about the same progress as other, and those who are not making progress.

There is no goal toward which they are striving. They simply are ranked in their peer group, a ranking that gives incomplete or misleading information.

For example, consider a student whose reading scores earned him a 70th percentile ranking among students statewide. The next year, that same student could move up the rankings—even if he made no academic progress—simply because his peers had even worse results than he did.

The norm-referenced approach measures students on a fluctuating scale that obscures their real progress. It leaves parents unsure of where their children stand academically in relation to where they need to be to be ready for the next grade or college and career.

A norm-referenced growth model also does not clearly convey to parents or to the public what percentage of students at a school are progressing toward mastery of standards. This is especially difficult because similar school-level growth scores or percentile rankings do not mean similar amounts of growth occurred in those schools.

Parents need relevant, transparent information about their children’s education. Are they making progress in the classroom? Are they gaining the knowledge necessary to graduate and succeed after high school? Is their current school successful in elevating students to where they need to be?

The norm-reference model offers few if any answers.

The criterion-based model answers them all.

For more resources and information concerning the Every Student Succeeds Act, visit ExcelinEd’s Policy Library.

About the author

Patricia Levesque @levesquepat

Patricia is the Chief Executive Officer for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. She served as Governor Jeb Bush’s deputy chief of staff for education, enterprise solutions for government, minority procurement, and business and professional regulation. Previously, Patricia served six years in the Florida Legislature in the Speakers Office and as staff director over education policy. Contact Patricia at