Common Use for Norm-Referenced Test

Most state achievement tests are criterion referenced. In other words, a predetermined level of acceptable performance is developed and students pass or fail in achieving or not achieving this level. Tests that set goals for students based on the average student's performance are norm-referenced tests. Tests that set goals for students based on a set standard (e.g., 80 words spelled correctly) are criterion-referenced tests.

Many college entrance exams and nationally used school tests use norm-referenced tests. The SAT, Graduate Record Examination (GRE), and Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) compare individual student performance to the performance of a normative sample. Test-takers cannot "fail" a norm-referenced test, as each test-taker receives a score that compares the individual to others that have taken the test, usually given by a percentile. This is useful when there is a wide range of acceptable scores that is different for each college. For example one estimate of the average SAT score for Harvard University is 2200 out of 2400 possible. The average for Indiana University is 1650.

By contrast, nearly two-thirds of US high school students will be required to pass a criterion-referenced high school graduation examination. One high fixed score is set at a level adequate for university admission whether the high school graduate is college bound or not. Each state gives its own test and sets its own passing level, with states like Massachusetts showing very high pass rates, while in Washington State, even average students are failing, as well as 80 percent of some minority groups. This practice is opposed by many in the education community such as Alfie Kohn as unfair to groups and individuals who don't score as high as others.