Criterion Based Versus Norm Referenced Evaluation of Learning

“We must not be afraid to follow the truth no matter where the truth leads us."
--Thomas Jefferson

Two forms of grading exist. These are criterion based and norm reference based. Letter grades appear in both forms on the academic transcript. Once on the transcript, neither form is distinguishable from the other.

The grade scale which sets a predetermined numerical performance value equal to a letter grade is criterion based. Perhaps the most frequently used scale sets 90% -100% as A, 80% - 89% as B, 70% - 79% as C, etc. This is the purest form of the “classic grading system.” There is no predetermined class GPA. All students can, in theory, earn the grade of A. Reducing or watering down course content facilitates a large number of high letter grades. This practice is called dumbing down.

The class curve constitutes a norm reference based system. The class average may or may not be taken into account as a basis for assigning grades. A predetermined class GPA may or may not exist. If so, this GPA may be set by the individual faculty member, or by the department, or even by the institution for all departments. If the class average GPA is not set in advance it can be expected to vary from class to class and course to course. In either case, preset GPA or not, the real extent of course content mastery cannot be determined from the academic transcript. The transcript itself does not distinguish between criterion based and norm reference based evaluation.

Both forms of evaluation should now be combined into a single format in order to provide much improved clarity in presenting the actual level of content mastery that occurs course by course.

Criterion Based:

Textbook content defines the appropriate level of learning to be achieved in most courses. This is criterion based. Course syllabi define the extent of in-class coverage of textbook content. Master syllabi define the content of course syllabi. This system provides a consistent standard against which the extent of learning is measured. Adoption of a strictly numerical approach to evaluation of learning provides the clearest depiction of the extent of learning accomplished.

Norm Referenced:

Norm referenced evaluation is defined by relative standing in the class in relation to some standard or norm. When norm referenced evaluation adopts a totally numerical approach and assigns a rank of 0 to the class average, ranking is expected to produce a normal distribution commonly referred to as the bell shaped curve. Such a ranking system removes the incentive to numerically inflate performance scores. Academic assessment procedures can be implemented to further discourage numerical inflation. Such a system then permits use of standard statistical procedures in calculating the variance and standard deviation. Further resolution can be attained through established statistical methods in use for hypothesis testing.

Use of the grade scale has led or is rapidly leading to a distribution of letter grades in which A’s predominate. C has been called the “Mark of Cain.” D & F are disappearing. This produces a distribution appropriate to describing the occurrence of random events. One random event simply occurs more frequently than the next, and so on down the line.

Letter grades are converted to a numerical value, the GPA which does permit calculations of variance and standard deviation. Upper end compaction skews the resulting distribution which no longer represents a balanced use of the entire letter grade spectrum. Tighter compaction around this elevated GPA compresses the variance and standard deviation making students appear increasingly identical. This compression defies the simple truth that all students are not the same and not all students are excellent in all disciplines. The end result is that grade inflation discriminates against higher education’s better students by covering their hard earned academic achievements under an avalanche of high grades. While such discrimination is not illegal, it is immoral.

“If there is strength in the “classic grading system”, that strength lies in its ability
to hide the truth in presenting the real extent of learning on the academic transcript."

--The Initiative to End Grade Inflation (in higher education)