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Norm-Referenced Test

Norm-Referenced Test

6 May, 2016

Designed to associate and rank test takers in relation to one another.

  • Other term: standardized tests
  • Reports whether test takers performed better or worse than a hypothetical average student, which is determined by comparing scores against the performance results of a statistically selected group of test takers, typically of the same age or grade level, who have already taken the exam.

Purposes of Norm-Referenced Test:

  1. To conclude a young child’s readiness for preschool or kindergarten. These tests may be intended to measure oral-language ability, visual-motor skills, and cognitive and social development.
  2. To assess basic reading, writing, and math skills. Test results may be used for a wide variety of purposes, such as measuring academic progress, making course assignments, determining readiness for grade promotion, or identifying the need for additional academic support.
  3. To recognize specific learning disabilities, such as autism, dyslexia, or nonverbal learning disability, or to determine eligibility for special-education services.
  4. To make program-eligibility or college-admissions decisions (in these cases, norm-referenced scores are generally evaluated alongside other information about a student). Scores on SAT or ACT exams are a common example.


  1. Used to make distinctions among students, often for the purposes of course placement, program eligibility, or school admissions.
  2. Abandoned by many schools and states in favor of criterion-referenced tests, which measure student performance in relation to common set of fixed criteria or standards, due to the design that ranks student performance on a relative scale—i.e., in relation to the performance of other students.


Norm-referenced tests are usually not the form of standardized test widely used to comply with state or federal policies—such as the No Child Left Behind Act—that are intended to measure school performance, close “achievement gaps,” or hold schools accountable for improving student learning results. In most cases, criterion-referenced tests are used for these purposes because the goal is to determine whether schools are successfully teaching students what they are expected to learn.



  1. Norm-referenced tests are relatively low-cost to develop, simple to administer, and easy to score. As long as the results are used alongside other measures of performance, they can provide valuable information about student learning.
  2. The quality of norm-referenced tests is usually high because they are created by testing experts, piloted, and revised before they are used with students, and they are dependable and stable for what they are designed to measure.
  3. Norm-referenced tests can help differentiate students and identify those who may have specific educational needs or deficits that require specialized assistance or learning environments.
  4. The tests are an objective evaluation method that can decrease bias or favoritism when making educational decisions. If there are limited places in a gifted and talented program, for example, one transparent way to make the decision is to give every student the same test and allow the highest-scoring students to gain entry.

Adverse effects:

  1. Norm-referenced scores are often misused in schools when making serious educational decisions, such as grade promotion or retention, which can have potentially harmful consequences for some students and student groups.
  2. Norm-referenced tests motivate teachers to view students in terms of a bell curve, which can lead them to lower academic expectations for certain groups of students, particularly special-needs students, English-language learners, or minority groups. And when academic expectations are consistently lowered year after year, students in these groups may never catch up to their peers, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  3. Multiple-choice tests—the dominant norm-referenced format—are better suited to measuring remembered facts than more difficult forms of thinking. Consequently, norm-referenced tests promote rote learning and memorization in schools over more sophisticated cognitive skills, such as writing, critical reading, analytical thinking, problem solving, or creativity.
  4. Overreliance on norm-referenced test results can lead to unintentional discrimination against minority groups and low-income student populations, both of which tend to face more educational obstacles that non-minority students from higher-income households. For example, many educators have argued that the overuse of norm-referenced testing has resulted in a significant overrepresentation of minority students in special-education programs. Furthermore, using norm-referenced scores to determine placement in gifted and talented programs, or other “enriched” learning opportunities, leads to the underrepresentation of minority and lower-income students in these programs. Similarly, students from higher-income households may have an unfair advantage in the college-admissions process because they can afford expensive test-preparation services.
  5. An overreliance on norm-referenced test scores undervalues important achievements, skills, and abilities in favor of the more narrow set of skills measured by the tests.