Wednesday 19 October 2016

Criterion or norm-referenced? Which should it and can it be?

Year on year we hear the arguments as GCSE and A-level results come out. Standards have gone up, standards have gone down, too many people are getting top grades. At exam boards within Higher Education we worry if results in one module are out of kilter with the rest.  At the institution that I’ve just left we even used a tool that showed this. We worry too, if the standard deviation changes over the years or is vastly different from the average standard deviation for a cohort.        



A driving test is generally criterion-referenced. Certainly at least the theory part is. You have to have a very high score to pass. Even in the practical test, there is a recognised minimum performance required. After all, one is about to let you out with a powerful killing machine. The good driving instructor will work out what you need to know and which skills you need to acquire and how to teach you all of that. If that instructor improves her own teaching skills then she should have lots of students who pass.
Yet there is still often a feeling that the examiners want to pass a certain number a day and any more or fewer than the average would be queried.
The old O-level and A-level were norm-related. This means that a certain percentage of students were going to get each grade. This could have the distinct disadvantage that if you were in a “good” cohort, then the bar was raised.


Why we shouldn’t worry about GCSEs

When they were first introduced in the 1986 the big news was that they were supposed to be criterion-referenced. We were supposed to work out what needed to be learnt – and this was not just knowledge but skills as well- and then work out how best to teach it. There was a possibility, then, of standards rising year on year. Yet when this does happen, it is regarded with suspicion.

My two concrete examples

For much of my time at the University of Salford I taught two specialist courses: Introduction to Children’s Literature, and Writing Novels for Young People. My research has constantly fed into those modules so that at the end of nine years I was teaching a much more complex and demanding courses. However, my teaching skills also improved (about time too, after 42 years!) so despite the courses in effect getting harder results were also getting slightly better. Certainly, the collective knowledge and skill competency were increasing.

Perhaps we need both?

Criterion-referencing helps us to really define what is needed. Norm-referencing helps us to control and investigate. However, if we get a low standard deviation, or all students obtaining 60+, we shouldn’t just assume that the course was too easy or assignments too leniently marked. We should scrutinize the course and the outcomes carefully.                         

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