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Cutscore or Passing Point: Definition and How To Set One

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A cutscore or passing point (aka cut-off score and cutoff score as well) is a score on a test that is used to categorized examinees.  The most common example of this is pass/fail, which we are all familiar with from our school days.  For instance, a score of 70% and above will pass, while below 70% will fail.  However, many tests have more than one cutscore.  An example of this is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in the USA, which as 3 cutscores, creating 4 categories: Below Basic, Basic, Proficient, and Advanced.

The process of setting a cutscore is called a standard-setting study.  However, I dislike this term because the word “standard” is used to reflect other things in the assessment world.  In some cases, it is the definition of what is to be learned or covered (see Common Core State Standards) and in other cases it refers to the process of reducing construct-irrelevant variance by ensuring that all examinees are taking the testing in standardized conditions (standardized testing).  So I prefer cutscore or passing point.  And passing point is limited to the case of an exam with only one cutscore where the classifications are pass/fail, which is not always the case – not only are there many situations where there are more than one cutscore, but many two-category situations might use other decisions, like Hire/NotHire or a clinical diagnosis like Depressed/NotDepressed.

 

Types of cutscores

There are two types of cutscores, reflecting the two ways that a test score can be interpreted: Norm-referenced and criterion-referenced.

 

Criterion-referenced Cutscore

A cutscore of this type is referenced to the material of the exam, regardless of examinee performance.  In most cases, this is the sort of cutscore that you need to be legally defensible for high stakes exams.  Psychometricians have spent a lot of time inventing ways to do this, and scientifically studying them.

Names of some methods you might see for this type are: modified-Angoff, Nedelsky, and Bookmark.

Example

An example of this is a certification exam.  If the cutscore is 75%, you pass.  In some months or years, this might be most candidates, in other months it might be fewer.  The standard does not change.  In fact, the organizations that manage such exams go to great lengths to keep it stable over time, a process known as equating.

 

Norm-referenced Cutscore

A cutscore of this type is referenced to the examinees, regardless of their mastery of the material.

A name of this you might see is a quota.  Such as when a test is delivered to only accept the top 10% of applicants.

Example

An example of this was in my college Biology class.  It was a weeder class, to weed out the students who start college planning to be pre-med simply because they like the idea of being a doctor or are drawn to the potential salary.  So, the exams were intentionally made very hard, so that the average score might only be 50% correct.  They then awarded an A to anyone who had a z-score of 1.0 or greater, which is the top 15% of students – regardless of how well you actually scored on the exam.  You might get a score of 60% correct but be 95th percentile and get an A.

 

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Nathan Thompson, PhD

CEO at Assessment Systems
Nathan Thompson, PhD, is CEO and Co-Founder of Assessment Systems Corporation (ASC). He is a psychometrician, software developer, author, and researcher, and evangelist for AI and automation. His mission is to elevate the profession of psychometrics by using software to automate psychometric work like item review, job analysis, and Angoff studies, so we can focus on more innovative work. His core goal is to improve assessment throughout the world. Nate was originally trained as a psychometrician, with an honors degree at Luther College with a triple major of Math/Psych/Latin, and then a PhD in Psychometrics at the University of Minnesota. He then worked multiple roles in the testing industry, including item writer, test development manager, essay test marker, consulting psychometrician, software developer, project manager, and business leader. He is also cofounder and Membership Director at the International Association for Computerized Adaptive Testing (iacat.org). He's published 100+ papers and presentations, but his favorite remains https://scholarworks.umass.edu/pare/vol16/iss1/1/.

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