Q:

Recently, my third-grader was given what is called a norm-referenced test. She scored in the 95th percentile overall. The teacher was really pleased with my child's score and said that the child should be in the Gifted & Talented program. Is this an accurate measure of my child's ability? Exactly what is a norm-referenced test? -- Smart Kid

A:

A norm-referenced test measures one person's score against the scores of a group of people who have already taken the test. Your daughter was not compared to all the students who have taken this test but to this norming group.

The purpose of norm-referenced tests is to compare students' scores. For example, your child's score indicates that she scored higher than 95 percent of the test takers in the norming group. The test is designed so that most students score near the middle. Only a few, like your daughter, receive high scores. On the other hand, there are also few low scores.

Your daughter is probably a very bright little girl. However, all tests have measurement error. Your daughter's 95th percentile is an estimate. Some tests results are reported in score bands showing the range within which the test taker's "true" score probably lies. And do remember that what was on the test is only a sample of a whole subject area. Plus, getting one or more questions right or wrong can result in a fairly large change in a student's score, especially sub-scores.

You should be pleased that your daughter can be in a Gifted & Talented program. Norm-referenced tests are often used for this purpose. If this is the only criterion for admission to such a program, some qualified children will be kept out.

Your daughter will take many norm-referenced tests during her school days. Most college admissions tests fall into this category, as well as such widely used tests as the California Achievement Test, the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Stanford Achievement Test.