What is a Normative Assessment? - Definition & Purpose

Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

Normative assessments are commonly used to rate the differences that exist between individuals. This lesson will help you understand what a normative assessment is and how it is used.

Normative Assessments

Imagine a high school basketball team. Twelve players are on the team, but the coach chooses the top five players to start each game. He has to compare player performance and identify the best players. The coach has just given the team an informal normative assessment. Normative assessments compare an individual's performance to others in a group. They determine whether the individual achieved at a level above, below or equal to the average performance. In uses such as standardized testing, scores will usually be reported as a percentile ranking along with a standard score on the exam. If your score is in the 80th percentile, you have scored as well as or better than 80 percent of the test-takers. It does not mean that you answered 80 percent of the questions correctly. It means that only 20 percent of the test-takers scored higher than you.

A visual example of what a score in the 80th percentile would look like.
80th percentile

Educational Uses

Normative assessments are used for a variety of educational purposes. IQ tests, developmental screenings, Common Core assessments, and academic achievement tests such as the SAT or ACT are all examples of normative assessments. Scores from these types of exams may evaluate basic reading, writing, and math skills. They may determine a child's eligibility for special education services or to identify specific learning disabilities. They may also be used to determine eligibility for advanced programs, scholarships, or college admission.

It is important to understand that normative assessments only rank students and are specifically designed to do so according to a bell curve. This means that the data will form the shape of a bell when graphed. Most students will perform average, with a small percentage of students that perform well and a small percentage of students that perform poorly. The questions on a normative assessment are designed to highlight differences in performance. Normative assessments do not determine if students have met learning standards or acquired specific knowledge. Because of this, they cannot be used to measure the progress of an entire group, only the comparative performance of one individual within a group.

An example of IQ scores forming a bell curve when drawn on a graph.
bell curve

Pros and Cons

Both advantages and disadvantages are found in the use of normative assessments. For this reason, it is important to take additional factors into consideration before making decisions based on an individual's test score. More than one normative assessment should also be considered. However, when normative assessments are used for their intended purpose, they can provide valid and useful information.

Let's take a look at some of the benefits.

Normative assessments are:

  • Proven to offer useful information
  • Easy to administer and score
  • Relatively inexpensive
  • Highly reliable
  • Objective
  • Helpful for ranking aptitude

Now let's examine some of the drawbacks to this type of testing.

The following are criticisms of normative assessments:

  • Can be misused
  • Can have an undue influence on expectations
  • Can produce misleading scores for students with special needs, minorities, and English-language learners
  • Tends to promote memorization over critical thinking skills
  • Undervalues abilities not measured through testing

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