In education and assessment, we use the word “standards” in a number of ways: curriculum standards, standards-based assessments, performance standards. Performance standards—also known as proficiency levels, achievement levels, performance descriptors, and more—are one way we report assessment results, and have a direct influence on decisions that affect educators and students every day.

Many of us use and discuss these performance standards without knowing where they come from. Performance standards are first a policy initiative representing student expectations of proficiency for an assessment program, and then are uniquely defined for each content and grade level, after at least one year of operational administration. Standard setting is the process undertaken by education experts to relate test scores from an assessment program to pre-defined achievement levels.

Here we explain the three basic facets of standard setting: purpose, use, and process.

(Next page: Defining the way to set standards.)

About the Author:

Dr. Steve Ferrara is senior advisor for measurement solutions at Measured Progress, a not-for-profit organization that works with states and districts across the country to create innovative and flexible assessment solutions that help improve teaching and learning. His career includes teaching and advocating for special education, serving as a state assessment director, conducting award winning research and innovation in assessment, language assessment, and psychometrics research.

Dr. Stephen Murphy is vice president, measurement services, at Measured Progress. In this capacity he leads the groups responsible for all aspects of assessment design and development, including psychometrics, content development, publishing, and content management.