Making the Cut: How States Set Passing Scores on Standardized Tests

Explainers | July 24, 2006
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In the current climate of accountability in American public education, tests get more attention and carry more importance than ever before. Both state accountability systems and the federal No Child Left Behind Act hold schools accountable for whether students pass standardized state tests. NCLB requires that schools and school districts make "adequate yearly progress" in reading and math. The law's standard of adequate progress is a sufficient percentage of students passing statewide tests, and it requires serious consequences for schools that continually miss these performance targets

But states too rarely explain what it actually means for a student to pass a state test, to be "proficient," or how passing scores are established. This gives parents, policymakers and the public only a partial understanding of educational progress and what measures like adequate yearly progress really mean. That's because trying to interpret student performance on a test without understanding the passing score is like reading a map without a scale. This Education Sector Explainer describes the methods states use to set passing or "cut" scores on tests, examines influences on states' score-setting work, and recommends steps to ensure that the public can better understand this important educational process.

Passing scores on state tests are one of three key steps in the development of state academic standards and assessments. First, states must create academic standards. These standards define what students should know and be able to do at different points in their schooling. Then the state develops or purchases tests to assess student progress against these standards. Finally, the state sets passing scores on these assessments, which ultimately determine how demanding the standards and assessments are for students. As a result, understanding the numbers that states release to the public requires an understanding of these underlying decisions.

The cut scores themselves and how they are set are the least discussed of these three steps, even though the cut score codifies what it means for a student to pass or be proficient. In fact, the entire issue of cut scores and the process by which they are set is rarely a focus of much public or media attention at all. This leaves the public with an incomplete picture because understanding the difficulty of passing a test is essential to making sense of student scores, state educational progress, NCLB requirements and various claims and counterclaims about student and school performance.