Criterion-Referenced Grading

Criterion-referenced grading systems are based on a fixed criterion measure. There is a fixed target and the students must achieve that target in order to obtain a passing grade in a course regardless of how the other students in the class perform. The scale does not change regardless of the quality, or lack thereof, of the students. For example, in a class of 100 students using the table below, no one might get a grade of excellent if no one scores 98 above or 85 above depending on the criterion used. There is no fixed percentage of students who are expected to get the various grades in the criterion-referenced grading system.

1.0 (Excellent) = 98-100    or   85-100
1.5 Good) = 88-97 or 80-84
2.0 (Fair) = 75-87 or 70-79
3.0 (Poor/Pass) = 65-74 or 60-69
5.0 (Failure) = below 65 or below 60

Criterion-referenced systems are often used in situations where the teachers are agreed on the meaning of a ” standard of performance” in a subject but the quality of the students is unknown or uneven; where the work involves student collaboration or teamwork; and where there is no external driving factor such as needing to systematically reduce a pool of eligible students.

Note that in a criterion-referenced grading system, students can help a fellow student in group work without necessarily worrying about lowering his grade in that course. This is because the criterion-referenced grading system does not require the mean (of the class) as basis for distributing grades among the students.

It is therefore an ideal system to use in collaborative group work. When students are evaluated based on predefined criteria, they are freed to collaborate with one another and with the instructor. With criterion-referenced grading, a rich learning environment is to everyone’s advantage, so students are rewarded for finding ways to help each other, and for contributing to class and small group discussions.

Since the criterion measure used in criterion-referenced grading is a measure that ultimately rests with the teacher, it is logical to ask: What prevents teachers who use criterion-referenced grading from setting the performance criteria so low that everyone can pass with ease? There are a variety of measures used to prevent this situation from ever happening in the grading system. First, the criterion should not be based on only one teacher’s opinion or standard. It should be collaboratively arrived at. A group of teachers teaching the same subject must set the criterion together. Second, once the criterion is established, it must be made public and open to public scrutiny so that it does not become arbitrary and subject to the whim and caprices of the teacher.