A criterion-referenced test is a style of test which uses test scores to generate a statement about the behavior that can be expected of a person with that score. Most tests and quizzes that are written by school teachers can be considered criterion-referenced tests. In this case, the objective is simply to see whether the student has learned the material. Criterion-referenced assessment can be contrasted with norm-referenced assessment and ipsative assessment.
Criterion-referenced testing was a major focus of psychometric research in the 1970s.
Definition of criterion
A common misunderstanding regarding the term is the meaning of criterion. Many, if not most, criterion-referenced tests involve a cutscore, where the examinee passes if their score exceeds the cutscore and fails if it does not (often called a mastery test). The criterion is not the cutscore; the criterion is the domain of subject matter that the test is designed to assess. For example, the criterion may be "Students should be able to correctly add two single-digit numbers," and the cutscore may be that students should correctly answer a minimum of 80% of the questions to pass.
The criterion-referenced interpretation of a test score identifies the relationship to the subject matter. In the case of a mastery test, this does mean identifying whether the examinee has "mastered" a specified level of the subject matter by comparing their score to the cutscore. However, not all criterion-referenced tests have a cutscore, and the score can simply refer to a person's standing on the subject domain. The ACT is an example of this; there is no cutscore, it simply is an assessment of the student's knowledge of high-school level subject matter.
Because of this common misunderstanding, criterion-referenced tests have also been called standards-based assessments by some education agencies, as students are assessed with regards to standards that define what they "should" know, as defined by the state.
Relationship to high-stakes testing
Many high-profile criterion-referenced tests are also high-stakes tests, where the results of the test have important implications for the individual examinee. Examples of this include high school graduation examinations and licensure testing where the test must be passed to work in a profession, such as to become a physician or attorney. However, being a high-stakes test is not specifically a feature of a criterion-referenced test. It is instead a feature of how an educational or government agency chooses to use the results of the test.