A Definition and Examples of Norm-Referenced Tests

How these tests offer age-based comparisons between students

Students taking an exam.
Students taking an exam. Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

A form of standardized testing, norm-referenced tests allow teachers to compare a student's skills to those of others in his age group or grade level. Children diagnosed with a learning disability or who have been referred for special education courses typically take norm-referenced, or normed, tests.

These tests not only help to diagnose learning disorders, they also help special education teachers and other professionals develop appropriate program planning for students with disabilities.

Learn more about norm-referenced tests, including how they are used and how they benefit students and school staff members, with this overview.

How Are Normed Tests Developed?

Norm-referenced tests are developed by creating the test items and then administering the test to a group of students that will be used as the basis of comparison. Statistical methods are used to determine how raw scores will be interpreted and what performance levels are assigned to each score.

Many tests yield standard scores, which allow comparison of the student's scores to other tests. They answer questions such as, "Does the student's achievement score appear consistent with his cognitive score?" The degree of difference between those two scores might suggest or rule out a learning disability.

Intelligence tests used in determining eligibility for special education programs are examples of norm-referenced tests.

The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) and the Stanford Binet-Intelligence Scale, formerly known as the Binet-Simon Test, are examples of individualized intelligence tests. The WISC test includes language-, symbol-, and performance-based questions while the Stanford Binet test helps to diagnose students with cognitive disabilities.

Individualized achievement tests help school personnel measure student's academic abilities. Examples of such tests are the Peabody Individual Achievement Test, the Woodcock Johnson Test of Achievement and the Brigance Comprehensive Inventory of Basic Skills. Collectively, these tests assess skills such as the ability to match pictures and letters and more complicated reading and math skills.

How Teachers Use Normed Tests

After the norming process, the tests are used to assess groups of students or individuals using standardized, or highly structured, administration procedures. The performance of these students is then rated using scales developed during the norming process.

Educators use norm-referenced tests to evaluate the effectiveness of teaching programs, to help determine students' preparedness for programs and to determine diagnosis of disabilities for eligibility for IDEA special education programs or adaptations and accommodations under Section 504.

Normed Tests Outside of Special Education

Normed tests are also used outside of special education programs.

Well-known tests, such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or American College Testing (ACT), are examples. Such tests can be used to compare students across regions, racial groups or socioeconomic backgrounds.

Wrapping Up

Normed-referenced tests are just one way to measure the abilities of students. Many students, with and without learning disabilities, have test anxiety or other issues that may lead them to underperform on tests. In other words, their tests results may not reflect their full capabilities. That's why it's important for school officials to use portfolios of student work, observations of students in class and other methods to assess their abilities in addition to tests.

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