Norm-referenced tests still being used to make high-stakes decisions

Setting up many students for failure, the Chicago public schools uses the NWEA Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) as a high-stakes test. It’s impossible for all test takers to score well. Despite being reasonably well-informed on the issue, I still get floored by how twisted this is.

Image from a 2011 blog post "15 reasons why the Seattle school district should shelve the MAP test – ASAP." ( In Chicago, Parents United for Responsible Education also wrote eloquently and organized relentlessly over the issue in the late 1990s. Despite continued Chicago and national pushback, the misuse of standardized testing is still going strong.In addition to many decisions on Individual Education Plans and programs within schools, high-stakes decisions like promotion in grades 3, 6 and 8, and high school selective enrollment entrance in grade 7 are based on the NWEA MAP scores.

As a special education teacher in an elementary school I am required to have my non-reading special education students sit down in front of this NWEA test, for which we are not allowed to provide appropriate accommodations. My kids get tested on every single possible standard they could ever encounter over years of schooling and then their "score" is not a pass/fail, it is a comparison. A percentile. A "norm-referenced" test.

According to the CPS MAP fact sheet, “The MAP Assessment is a web-based, computer-adaptive, multiple-choice assessment with questions that automatically adapt to each student’s instructional level based on their responses, independent of the enrolled grade level. The final score is an estimate of the student’s achievement level. This assessment can inform instruction, track student growth over time and project student growth targets.” No information is given about norm-referencing.

Even if we work our butts off, and kids are learning like crazy (within the silly confines of this assessment), it actually doesn't matter. This test is designed to create a bell curve. All kids cannot “pass” it, no matter what the teacher or the student does. There will always be the same number of kids at the top and the bottom and the middle. And it is always the same kids at the bottom, isn't it?

These tests are different than performance tasks, tests developed by teachers that cover one, single standard/concept in a course. If a teacher prepares her students, theoretically, every single student can pass criterion-based assessments.

NWEA itself says using NWEA MAP as anything other than a diagnostic is a misuse of the test. It sets up many to fail.
These bogus scores are being used to dismantle public education, especially in Black communities. It's being used to justify mass school closures, firing of teachers especially Black teachers, and the warping of the education experience of students most prominently for Black students.

We must change this.


November 15, 2020 at 12:10 PM

By: Bob Alexander

Katie Osgood article about norm references high stakes testing

Katie osgood's article on using criterion referenced tests to make high stakes decisions about students in K-12 points out a disgrace perpetrated on children, families, and teachers in several states. Unfortunately, there is a subtlety of understanding the difference between norm referenced and criterion referenced testing that that bypasses the knowledge base of most people. The nuance of creating a test that measures how well a student has mastered a body of knowledge and skills and then forcing those scores into a bell-shaped curve is not easily grasped or understood by the general public. This is a wildly inappropriate statistical procedure. The bottom line is 100% of the students could show mastery of the subject yet some of them will fail!

When I had conversations with the Florida State department of education testing staff about this issue, their response was quite frightening. They readily admitted that they are using criterion referenced testing in Florida to make decisions about students moving from one grade to another and even receiving a high school diploma. They further admitted that was highly inappropriate to do so. Their explanation was rather simple: "We just developed the test; it's the politicians that decide what to do with the results.". The bottom line is that because they're on a bell-shaped curve 50% of the students fail the high school reading test. Many of them could be showing adequate abilities to read when considering the criteria that were measured!

I would rather suspect that there are many states across America that have fallen into the same sand trap. I don't believe that even the politicians recognize the problems they have created. I seriously doubt that they understand the difference between norm referenced and criterion reference tests better than the general population. It is a sad state of affairs.

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