Standardized tests are not popular in the United States. An August 2013 PDK/Gallup poll found that more than 75 percent of Americans don’t think standardized testing has improved local schools. However, the tests are widely used throughout the nation. They are designed to measure student performance, but test-designers use different forms depending on how the results will be used.


The purpose of testing is to find out what students know and then use this information to improve their learning. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 made gathering and using this data more important. Schools have to show their students have basic skills in reading and math. If not, districts are responsible for helping struggling students improve. Schools have to prove that their students are progressing, or the federal government can step in and make changes. NCLB uses standardized testing to measure student progress.

Standardized Tests

Test developers work to make the experience of taking a standardized test the same for every student. They see the same content in the same form for the same amount of time. Sample tests are created and given to students to try to make them fair within diverse school systems. Standardized tests are relatively inexpensive ways for schools to measure students’ progress. Common standardized tests include the Iowa Achievement Test and California Achievement Test. These are norm-referenced tests, although standardized tests come in other forms, too.

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Norm-Referenced Test

Norm-referencing tests show how well students did compared to others who took the same test. Schools use them to compare their students' achievement to others. The results are usually given in percentiles. For example, if you scored in the 70th percentile, you did equal to or better than 70 percent of the students who took the test. These are usually multiple-choice exams based on textbooks used in many parts of the country. However, if a school has different books, its students may not have learned some of the content on the test. Commonly used norm-referencing tests are the Terra Nova, Stanford Achievement Test and Metropolitan Achievement Test.

Other Standardized Tests

Criterion-referenced testing shows how well students meet a set of standards. They show whether students have a insufficient, proficient or advanced understanding of information. These tests often focus on highly specific content, especially compared to norm-referenced tests. Standards-based testing combines both norm- and criterion-referenced tests. Results show how students compare to their peers as well as whether they understand basic knowledge as set by content standards. States often use standards-based testing to measure progress based upon their own academic standards.

About the Author

Living in upstate New York, Susan Sherwood is a researcher who has been writing within educational settings for more than 10 years. She has co-authored papers for Horizons Research, Inc. and the Capital Region Science Education Partnership. Sherwood has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University at Albany.