Disadvantages of Criterion Referenced Assessments

By kanaitsa

Criterion-referenced assessments are mostly used in special education and measure a student's performance against a specific standard or criteria. This type of assessment does have some disadvantages when compared to the norm-referenced assessment.

Norm-Referenced Assessments

Norm-referenced assessments are used to measure a student's performance by comparing it to the performance of other students taking the same test.

Criterion-Referenced Assessments

These are tests that measure a particular student's performance against a standard or criteria. They should not be confused with the norm-referenced assessments that measure a student's performance against that of other students. The content and skills in a criterion-referenced assessment are more specific. The criterion-referenced assessment focuses more on the level of mastery for specific skills like editing and reports on an index, with zero being a low score and 100 being a high score. Criterion-referenced assessment tests show the degree to which a student has mastered a skill.

Difference Between the Two

The major difference between criterion-referenced and norm-referenced assessments has to do with how a student's performance is measured. In norm-referenced assessments, the students are compared to other students using a percentile system. In criterion-referenced assessments, the students level of performance is measured according to a standard that the student has to meet.

For example, if a swimmer's speed on the 100 meters lap is compared to other swimmers using the norm-referenced concept, the examiner would report that the swimmer who swam the 100 meters in one minute was in the 70th percentile. While using the criterion assessment the examiner would report that the standard for swimming 100 meters is 50 seconds and the swimmer did it in one minute, 10 seconds short of the criterion.


Although these assessments are becoming more popular in the special education field they do have some drawbacks. These include:

  • It does not allow for comparing the performance of students in a particular location with national norms. For example, a school would be unable to compare 5th grade achievement levels in a district, and therefore be unable to measure how a school is performing against other schools.
  • It is time-consuming and complex to develop. Teachers will be required to find time to write a curriculum and assessments with an already full work-load. It might require more staff to come in and help.
  • It costs a lot of money, time and effort. Creating a specific curriculum takes time and money to hire more staff; and most likely the staff will have to be professionals who have experience.
  • It needs efficient leadership and collaboration, and lack of leadership can cause problems - for instance, if a school is creating assessments for special education students with no well-trained professionals, they might not be able to create assessments that are learner-centered.
  • It may slow the process of curriculum change if tests are constantly changed. It is diifficult for curriculum developers to know what is working and what is not working because tests tend to be different from one school to another. It would require years of collecting data to know what is working and what is not.

Despite it's flaws, criterion-referenced assessments will still be important in special education because comparing scores of students with special needs to average students will not achieve much in measuring the student's current level of performance.