The Criterion Referenced Assessment: What It Is and Other Types

The criterion referenced assessment or test relies on test scores to create a statement related to the behavior people can expect from the person who got the score. Most likely, you have already encountered these countless times in schools or colleges. Today we are going to find out more about the criterion referenced assessment and other types of tests.

Criterion Referenced Assessment – What Is It?

As we stated in the beginning, this is a type of test that aims to see whether a person has learned a material. Though it may seem simple, many people confuse the term ‘criterion’. If you have a look at most criterion referenced tests, you will see that they have a cut score. This means that the examinee will pass if their score exceeds the set cut score, and it will fail if it doesn’t. However, the criterion is not the cut score, but the subject matter which the test needs to assess. For instance, the criterion can be formulated like this: “Students need to add numbers correctly”. Meanwhile, the cut score can be 80%, which is not the same thing.

As such, the aim here is to pinpoint the relationship of the examinee to the subject matter. If we are talking of a mastery test, then the examiner wants to find out if the student has mastered a certain level of the subject matter. Thus, they will compare their score to the set cut score. However, not every criterion referenced assessment uses a cut score, which can simply refer to the examinee’s standing on the domain. Due to the misunderstanding of the term criterion, some education agencies started calling this type of tests standards-based assessments.

Ways to Score a Criterion Referenced Assessment

Naturally, there are many ways to score such an assessment. Among them, we can find:

  • Percent accurate;
  • Rating scales;
  • Rubrics;
  • Grades;
  • Checklists, etc.

Examples of Criterion Referenced Assessments

To get a better understanding of the concept, it’s useful to have a look at a couple of examples:

1. Driving Tests

These are a great example of criterion-referenced tests. They aim to see whether the examinee has enough skills to receive a driver’s license. As such, they are not interested in seeing which test taker is more skilled than the other.

2. Citizenship Tests

Once again, the goal of these tests is to see if the test taker knows enough about the history, government, etc., of the new country. They don’t aim to set a hierarchy among the test takers.

3. Advanced Placement Exams

The advanced placement exams assess high school students’ knowledge by relying on a college-level curriculum. People who obtain a high score on this examination may receive placement and course credit.

4. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)

For those of you who may not know, this is the biggest nationally representative assessment in the U.S. It shows what students know and can do in different subjects. It aims to offer results for various demographic groups, thus relying on race/ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.

These examples, and not only, show how important the criterion referenced assessment is. Most of the time, they rely on true-false questions, multiple-choice ones, ‘open-ended’ questions (that ask for an essay or a short response), or a combination between all these.

criterion referenced assessment table

Table showing the different types of criterion referenced assessment. Image courtesy of Lindsay Snow

Other Types of Assessment

Often, the criterion referenced assessment is contrasted with other two types: norm referenced and ipsative assessment. Let’s have a look at these two types:

1. Norm-Referenced Test (NRT)

The aim of this test is to provide an estimate that derives from the analysis of test scores, as well as other data, based on a sample drawn from the population. Simply put, the NRT sees if the test taker performs better or worse than the other individuals who took the test. It doesn’t focus on a given purpose for which the test taker needs to know either more or less material. As such, the main difference here is that the normative assessment compares the test takes with their peers.

2. Ipsative Assessment

To understand better the concept of ipsative assessment, we need to talk first about its origin and meaning. It is, in fact, a descriptor employed in psychology. It indicates a certain type of measure where the test takers need to compare 2 or more option and pick the one they prefer. This method is also called a ‘forced choice’ scale. Most of the time, people who take the test are asked to choose a score (from 1 to 5, from 1 to 10, etc.) that best represents the extent to which they agree or not with a statement.

The main difference here is the fact that the ipsative assessment aims to compare the current test result to the previous ones. It is very common in everyday life, such as in physical education or in computer games. For example, it encourages people to beat their own previous scores, which is useful because it takes peer pressure out of situations. Moreover, it cuts off the competitive element we can find in norm-based referencing.

3. High-Stakes Tests

Many people confuse the criterion referenced assessment with the high-stakes tests. Here, the results of the test determine important implications for the test takers. Think of the graduation examinations, for instance, or the licensure testing. These are the tests you need to pass if you want to work in a certain profession (such as attorney or physician). However, their structure doesn’t necessary match the one of the criterion referenced assessment. Instead, this focuses only on how a government or a educational agency uses the results of this particular type of test.


The criterion referenced assessment is a useful tool to find out if a person studied a material or not. It is mostly used in educational institutions, and it’s essentially different than other types, such as the ipsative or the norm-referenced assessment. As opposed to these other two, it doesn’t aim to compare the test-taker to other test takers or to their previous results. You can find the criterion referenced evaluation in driving or citizenship tests, for example.

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