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   Dear Expert,

I recently read an article you wrote titled “Proficiency Tests are Drawing Fire for Good Reasons” and I have a question with which I am hopeful you can provide an answer to or provide some guidance on how I can get the answer. I am a single mom (recently divorced) with custody of my 5 year old daughter. She will begin kindergarten in the fall and I want to make sure she is in a good program. I have been interviewing different kindergarten and elementary schools in the Strongsville Ohio area and I am wondering - what is the difference between IOWA testing and Ohio Proficiency Testing? The public schools boast their Ohio Proficiency test scores as being the best and then St. Joseph and John boasts their IOWA scores. Are the two institutions comparing apples to oranges? Which testing is a better reflection that the children are really learning?

Hopefully you can help clear up my confusion.

Respectfully, Laura

Our expert's answer:

The issue you are raising has to do with the difference between norm referenced ( i.e.Iowa) and criterion-referenced (i.e. Ohio Proficiency) testing.

Test used in schools in the USA are categorized into two major groups: norm-referenced tests and criterion-referenced tests. These two types of tests differ greatly. The major reason for using a norm-referenced test is to classify students. Such tests highlight achievement differences between and among students to produce a dependable rank order of students across a continuum of achievement from high achievers to low achievers . Tests such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, California Achievement Test and the Metropolitan Achievement Test are normed using a national sample of students. Generally speaking, norm-referenced tests ascertain the rank of students while criterion-referenced tests determine what students can do and what they know, not how they compare to others.

In sum, normally, the content of a norm-referenced test is selected according to how well it ranks students from high achievers to low. The content of a criterion-referenced test is determined by how well it matches the learning outcomes deemed by authorities, such as the state education agency, most important. Although no test can measure everything of importance, the content selected for the criterion-referenced test is selected on the basis of its significance in the curriculum while that of the norm-referenced test is chosen by how well it discriminates among students.

Hope this helps.

William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D., FACFE

William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D., FACFE
President & CEO SchoolMatch® and
Distinguished Research Professor University of Dayton

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