student performance to agreed-upon standards for what students should know and be able to do, irrespective of how other students performed.
It is important to note that the terms “norm-referenced” and “standards-referenced” are characteristics of reports, not tests. However, the type of report a test is intended to produce influences how it is designed. Tests designed to produce comparative scores generally omit items that nearly all students can answer or those that nearly all students cannot answer, since these items do not yield comparisons. Yet such items may be necessary for a standards-referenced report, if they measure student performance against standards.
Some of the ways test results are reported confound the distinction between norm-referenced and standards-referenced reporting. For example, many newspaper accounts and members of the public refer to “grade-level” or “grade-equivalent” scores as though these scores represent standards for students in a particular grade. That is, they refer to the scores as though they believe that, when 40 percent of students are reading “at grade-level,” two-fifths of students are able to read what students in their grade are expected to read, based on shared judgments about expectations for student performance. In fact, “grade level” is a statistical concept that is calculated by determining the mean performance of a norm group for a given grade. Half of the students in the norm group necessarily perform “below grade level,” if the test is properly normed.
Because of the interest among policy makers and the public for both types of information—information about comparative performance and performance against standards—several states combine standards-based reports with norm-referenced reports; similarly, states participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress to provide comparative information as well.
By requiring states to “provide coherent information about student attainment of the state's content and student performance standards,” the Title I statute effectively mandates the use of standards-based reports. The law also requires states to set at least three levels of achievement: proficient, advanced, and partially proficient. However, the law leaves open the possibility that states can provide norm-referenced information as well.
Reporting results from tests according to standards depends first on decision rules about classifying students and schools. Creating those decision rules is a judgmental process, in which experts and lay people make decisions about what students at various levels of achievement ought to know and be able to do (Hambleton, 1998). One group's judgments may differ from another's. As a result, reports that indicate that a proportion of students are below the proficient level—not meeting standards—may not reflect the true state of student achievement. Another process may suggest that more students have in fact met standards (Mills and Jaeger, 1998).