Thursday, January 29, 2009

Could Kentucky just use a norm-referenced test?

Kentucky accepts more than $200 million a year in federal Title 1 funding. In exchange, we commit to meet the No Child Left Behind requirements for standards, testing, and accountability in reading, mathematics, and science. We have federal approval for our current Core Content standards and CATS testing methods, but suppose we decided to make a change. Could we use an off-the-shelf norm-referenced test and still meet our NCLB obligations?

I recently took a fifty-state Internet tour and found that:
  • Iowa is using the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.
  • Eleven states start with items from a norm-referenced test, add their own questions, and produce criterion-referenced test scores from the resulting assessment.
  • Thirty-seven states use a customized criterion-referenced test.
  • Nebraska uses a unique school-based, teacher-led approach to assessment.
What's going on? NCLB does not just require standards and assessment separately: it requires detailed proof that the two are aligned, and off-the-shelf tests are not, in general, well designed to fit a state's expectations without augmentation.

It is, therefore, nearly certain that Kentucky could not substitute an existing NRT for CATS and meet our NCLB obligations.

For a one-page PDF showing how states do their NCLB testing, click here.


  1. Susan, I would like a really good explanation of the differences between a norm referenced test as opposed to a criterion based test. I find when I am talking to people, that they really do not understand the difference between these two tests or when one should be used over the other.

  2. Lou Ann,

    Your excellent question deserves its own post. Coming right up.

  3. Susan,

    I think it’s awfully hard to say at this time that, “It is, therefore, nearly certain that Kentucky could not substitute an existing NRT for CATS and meet our NCLB obligations.”

    Aside from the point that I don’t think the new administration has sent out clear messages about how they might revise the assessment requirements of NCLB, the facts you present don’t support your conclusion.

    You point out that another state is already approved under NCLB to use an NRT for federal accountability (Iowa). And, a lot of other states use NRTs with some local question augmentation. So, historically speaking, it is possible, because it already has happened.

    Also, don’t forget that we may be looking at a review of all our CATS standards based on the Assessment and Accountability Task Force recommendations and pending Senate Joint Resolution 19, which will emphasizes doing a revision in math. If that happens, we may find our revised Core Content more closely matches off the shelf NRTs, which is the criterion for NCLB acceptance.

    However, I think all bets are off on this until the new administration gets its feet on the ground and we see how they plan to administer NCLB in the interim and then ultimately renew/revise it.

    By the way, I hope your ice-induced challenges are quickly being overcome. The state certainly took a nasty pasting from the weather.

  4. What exactly does our accountability system hold those responsible accountable for? It is meant to make sure that schools teach their students the knowledge, capacities, and abilities embodied in our state standards. If a school is successful in doing so, that should mean the adopted assessment would reveal such. In fact, if a school was successful, the assessment should at least be likely to show that all students had mastered the content.

    An NRT doesn't make sense due to its very design, its purpose, its raison d'etre, and before any one begins to advocate for its use in an accountability system, they must first understand the design of NRT's.

    In short, the statistical likelihood that all (100%) of any state's students will score proficient (say at least in the 70th percentile) on an NRT is virtually none. Even if schools do teach the content of state standards well, an NRT is unlikely to show it.

    An NRT is a fantastic tool for college admissions purposes. It may quite possibly be the worst tool to use for accountability. Should budget concerns, personal beliefs and/ or experiences, or political motives usurp the intention of an accountability system?


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