Using Norm-Referenced Tests for Learning Disabilities

Students taking an exam.
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Norm-referenced tests are a form of standardized testing that compares "normal" skill levels to those of individual students of the same age. By comparing students to one another, it is possible to determine whether, how, and to what a degree a particular student is ahead of or behind the norm. These tests help to diagnose learning disorders and also help special education teachers and other professionals develop appropriate program planning for students with disabilities.

Norm-referenced tests are developed by creating the test items and then administering the test to a group of students that will be used as the basis of comparison. Statistical methods are used to determine how raw scores will be interpreted and what performance levels are assigned to each score.


IQ tests are one well-known form of normed testing. The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) and the Stanford Binet-Intelligence Scale, formerly known as the Binet-Simon Test, are examples of individualized intelligence tests. The WISC test includes language-, symbol-, and performance-based questions while the Stanford-Binet test helps to diagnose students with cognitive disabilities.

Individualized achievement tests help school personnel measure student's academic abilities. Examples of such tests are the Peabody Individual Achievement Test, the Woodcock-Johnson Test of Achievement and the Brigance Comprehensive Inventory of Basic Skills. Collectively, these tests assess skills such as the ability to match pictures and letters and more complicated reading and math skills.

How Educators and Practitioners Use Normed Tests

Many tests yield standard scores, which allow comparison of the student's scores to other tests. They answer questions such as, "Does the student's achievement score appear consistent with his IQ score?" The degree of difference between those two scores might suggest or rule out a learning disability. They might also suggest or rule out intellectual gifts in certain areas.

Some normed tests are delivered in classroom settings. Others are delivered by professional therapists or doctors in medical settings or clinics. Proper evaluation of test results, along with other types of observations and testing, are used to diagnose disabilities or delays. In some cases, normed tests help determine eligibility for IDEA special education programs or adaptations and accommodations under Section 504.

Once a child is covered by an individualized educational plan (IEP) or 504 plan, their progress must be monitored closely. Educators use norm-referenced tests to evaluate the effectiveness of teaching programs and to help determine whether changes are needed.

Normed Tests Outside of Special Education

Normed tests are also used outside of special education programs. Well-known tests, such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or American College Testing (ACT), are examples. Such tests can be used to compare students across regions, racial groups or socioeconomic backgrounds.

The Limits of Normed Testing

Normed-referenced tests are just one way to measure the abilities of students. Many students, with and without learning disabilities, have test anxiety or other issues that may lead them to underperform on tests. In other words, their tests results may not reflect their full capabilities. That's why it's important for school officials to use portfolios of student work, observations of students in class and other methods to assess their abilities in addition to tests.

By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.