An ELT Glossary : Norm and Criterion Referenced Testing

In norm referenced testing, the percentage of the test cohort (ie the people taking the exam) who will pass or get certain grades is decided in advance. Eg if I have a class of 20 learners I might decide in advance that, when the test is marked, the top 25% (ie the 5 learners with the highest marks) will get Grade A, the second 25% Grade B, the third 25% grade C, and the final 25% will fail. This means that if in June I give the test to a very good group, someone with 60/100 marks may well fail - because 15 out of the 20 learners got higher marks than this. However, a learner belonging to a much weaker cohort, which takes the test in December, might gain Grade A with 60/100 - because s/he was in the top 5%.

This unfair discrepancy is avoided by criterion referenced testing, which measures learner performance against a set of predetermined factors - ie descriptions of what learners are expected to know and/or be able to do at a specific stage of their learning.

For example, some simple criteria for a writing test at B2 level might include eg :

  • Divides the essay into logically ordered paragraphs, each focusing on a single topic (or two shorter but logically connected topics) 
  • Uses a topic sentence to alert the reader to the topic of the paragraph. 
  • Uses connective expressions accurately and appropriately to show the relationship between ideas 

Criterion referenced testing means that all learners who meet these standards will pass - regardless of whether this is 100% of the cohort, 0% or anywhere in between. My learners in June and December who score 60/100 will get the same grade, regardless of whether the test is taken in June or December. Learners are judged by what they can do - not by comparison with others in the cohort.