The skills and competencies relevant to the human experience are relative. Running speed is irrelevant unless you know how fast the fastest man on earth can run. Intelligence is subjective unless you compare the IQ of the top minds around the globe and determine a benchmark for high intelligence. Even beauty is best judged when compared to a group of individuals with clearly defined parameters.

One of the best ways to capture human ability and performance in a relative manner is by conducting a norm-referenced evaluation. In this piece, we will look beyond the norm-referenced test definition and explore with examples what these tests are, how they are applied. Finally, we will evaluate norm-referenced test advantages and disadvantages.


  1. What is a Norm-Referenced Test?

  2. Different Types of Norm-Referenced Tests

  3. Norm-Referenced Tests Advantages and Disadvantages


What is a Norm-Referenced Test?

A norm-referenced test is a standardized test or assessment that attempts to rank an individual test-taker in comparison to a subset of the population that also took the same test. Normally, a specific skill, trait, or criterion is defined for the comparative assessment. All test-takers are measured under similar circumstances or against a predefined average when ranking or position their performance.

One of the most popular norm-referenced test examples is comparing a person’s IQ to the benchmark IQ for average intelligence, which is 80. If a person taking a standardized IQ test achieves a score of 100, their intelligence level may be considered above average. A score below 80, on the other hand, could raise flags for special needs or learning impediments.

Here are a few more norm-referenced test examples.


  1. Norm-referenced tests in education: These are perhaps the most common and relatable example for most people. These include entrance exams to colleges and competitive exams for professional courses and are designed to assess the relative performance of test-takers to a predefined group.
  2. Skill-based tests: Non-referenced assessment examples also include various subject—and skill-based tests organized in learning institutions—to determine the relative performance of learners. These tests determine eligibility for promotion to the next learning level or demotion to a previous level. They also help educators plan and modify their training programs for maximum impact.
  3. Norm-referenced evaluation for learning abilities: A non-referenced test can help define the existence and severity of learning disorders such as dyslexia, autism or non-verbal learning disability in children and adults. Based on test findings, a person’s eligibility for special education services or special needs can be determined.


As per the norm-referenced test definition, the results of such an assessment would yield either a curve or spectrum along which all test-takers can be plotted. Norm-referenced tests can be categorized into various types.

Different Types of Norm-Referenced Tests

Norm-referenced tests are designed to measure the relative performance of test-takers instead of their absolute skill or understanding level. The questions in a norm-referenced test are usually multiple-choice and objective, rarely involving subjective answers. Therefore, the different types of norm-referenced tests can be defined not on the basis of their design but on how their results are plotted. These are:


  • Bell curve results

    In these types of norm-referenced tests, the performance of all test takers is plotted on a bell curve. The top 20% and bottom 20% of the test-taking populace form the narrow ends of the bell curve. The peak of the bell curve is formed by 50-60% of the test-takers, who are relatively average performers.

  • Percentile-based results

    In this type of test, all test-takers are given a percentile (or a version of quantile) score instead of an absolute score. Commonly used in entrance exams or for school admissions, these norm-referenced tests assess how well a candidate performed compared to other test-takers. So, a test-taker receiving the 85th percentile would have performed better than 85% of the test-takers and worse than 15% of the test-takers in a given attempt.

  • Absolute scores with a moving cut-off

    In these tests, an absolute score is allocated to the test-takers, but the relative performance is measured with a moving cut-off. This is commonly seen in entrance or eligibility exams, where, if all test-takers have performed well, a high cut-off can be determined to select eligible candidates. The cut-off can be moved with every test attempt based on the relative performance of the test-takers.


Norm-Referenced Tests Advantages and Disadvantages

On the positive side, a norm-referenced evaluation is easy and cost-efficient to develop and administer. Usually multiple choice in nature, a norm-referenced evaluation is more objective than subjectively designed criterion-referenced tests.

However, on the downside, despite their standardized and high-quality design, norm-referenced tests can’t determine the actual learning or skill level of test-takers in an absolute sense. This proves to be a big roadblock with norm-referenced tests in education because they diverge from the state-defined norms of achieving a standard skill or knowledge level as per grade.

Final Thoughts

As is evident from the norm-referenced test examples discussed above, these tests find very specific applications. Norm-referenced tests are the way to go when it isn’t imperative to ensure a learning level among all test-takers or selection has to be made from a limited group irrespective of the candidates’ absolute abilities. In any other context, norm-referenced tests are better considered in conjunction with other assessments or achievements. Join the Inspiring Faculty Program offered by Harappa right now, to gain full learning benefits.

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