What are performance and content standards and how do criterion-referenced and norm-referenced test score interpretations fit in?
It is important to differentiate between content standards—curricular frameworks that specify what should be taught at each level (e.g., mandated curriculum standards)—and performance standards—what learners must do to demonstrate proficiency with respect to the specific content. There are two ways to interpret test scores: criterion referenced and norm referenced. Criterion-Referenced Interpretations: Increasingly, educators and parents want to know more than just how a learner's performance compares with that of other students: they ask, "What level of performance does a score represent?" and "How good is good enough?" To be able to adequately answer these questions, criterion-referenced interpretations are required. A criterion-referenced interpretation of a test score compares the specific knowledge and skills measured by the test to the learner's proficiency with the same knowledge and skills. Criterion-referenced scores have meaning in terms of what the learner knows or can do, rather than in relation to the scores produced by some external reference (or norm) group (norm-referenced interpretation). Criterion-referenced standards describe what learner should be able to do at a specific level of performance. When performance standards are developed, typically a group of experts in the field (e.g., curriculum specialists, test developers, business leaders) evaluate the test items and determine what level of mastery is necessary to be at each performance level in the content area. Increasingly, four or five performance levels are established to describe a learner’s level of mastery: below basic, basic, proficient, advanced (and perhaps one additional level). The “proficient” level is often designated as “passing,” or showing adequate mastery of the content area. Performance standards reflect the judgment of the persons setting the standards and may change over time as higher (or lower) standards are set. Each test developer determines its own performance standards. As a result, the Lexile measure indicating a passing score in one assessment may be different than the measure that indicates passing in another test linked with the Lexile Framework. The Lexile Framework for Reading provides a context for examining performance standards from two perspectives—reader-based standards and text-based standards. Reader-based standards are determined by examining the skills and knowledge of learners identified as being at the requisite level (the examinee-centered method) or by examining the test items and defining what level of skills and knowledge the learner must have to be at the requisite level (the task-centered method). A cut score is established that differentiates between learners who have the desired level of skills and knowledge to be considered as meeting the standard and those who do not. Text-based standards are determined by specifying those texts that learners with a certain level of skills and knowledge (for example, a secondary school graduate) should be able to read with a specified level of comprehension. A cut score is established that reflects this level of ability and is then annotated with benchmark texts descriptive of the standard. Norm-Referenced Interpretations: Although norm-referenced interpretations provide useful information about how a learner’s score compares to the scores of a comparison group (e.g., same age or school year), norm-referenced interpretations do not tell us whether a learner has mastered the material for a particular course or school year. Norm-referenced standards do not describe what learners can do at a specific level of performance. A criterion-referenced test and interpretations as well as performance standards do provide this frame of reference. A norm-referenced interpretation of a test score expresses how a learner performed on the test compared to other learners of the same age or school year. Norm-referenced interpretations of reading test results, however, do not provide any information about what a learner can or cannot read. Norm-referenced interpretations simply compare learner performances without regard to specific content. For accountability purposes, percentiles, normal curve equivalents (NCEs), and stanines are often used to report test results when making comparisons (norm-referenced interpretations).