Know Your Exam: Methods of Scoring

By now, you've hopefully read up on the ways that exams can be administered and the types of questions you're likely to encounter in a standardized test or professional certification exam. Now let's take a look at the ways that exams are scored. This will be important as you develop your personal test plan. First off, there are two major types of exam scoring: norm-referenced scoring and criterion-referenced scoring. Norm-referenced scores are scores that reflect where a test-taker falls in comparison to their peers who have also taken the test.  You may used to this if you had a teacher in high school or college who graded on a curve. This score may be expressed as a percentile, meaning that you did better than x percent of your peers. Criterion-referenced scores are absolute scores given based on the number of correct answers on a given exam or adherence with a pre-determined rubric. In a criterion-referenced exam, you get a perfect score by answering all the questions correctly or perfectly following the grading rubric. By contrast, in a norm-referenced exam, a person need not get all of the questions right to get the top score (the 99th percentile). Now that we've looked at the big picture, let's delve into the particulars of how exams are scored.  

Computer Scoring of Multiple-Choice Questions

With the advent of the scantron, computers have been assisting in grading multiple choice tests for years.  It is simply a matter of the examiner entering in an answer key to a computer and that computer matching the test-takers answers to that answer key.  This also helps to eliminate human error from the grading equation, as a human could easily mismark an answer to a question, the computer is much less likely to make this mistake.  

Essay Auto Scoring

Computers are also beginning to make headway into the world of scoring essays.  For exams such as the SAT, the essay portion is just as much about the test-taker's ability to write in the proper form as it is about the content of the essay. A computer algorithm is able to recognize sentence form and structure, and assign the essay a score based on predetermined criteria. For other tests where certain vocabulary words are to be used, the computer can also be set to determine if those words were used or not.  If you know that your exam will include an auto-scored essay, read sample essays that are available from test prep companies.  These essays will provide you with a baseline example of what the computer is looking for when auto-scoring, and can really help you raise your own score. Check out our article on essay-writing for computer-based tests for more info.  

Computer Adaptive Testing

As we mentioned before, Computer Adaptive Tests  (CAT) will score themselves as you go.  More specifically, the scoring algorithm hones in on your score as you answer questions in different difficulty levels. If you miss several very difficult questions, it will figure that you're not in the top scoring range and give you medium-level questions. Through this method, the test-taker will wind their way through a series of questions specifically tailored to, and determining, their exact level of knowledge on any given subject.  With these tests as well, there will be a different point for each person where the exam will end based on how much they know. The first few questions of a Computer Adaptive Test are often some of the most important questions, as they begin to guide you down which path your test is going to take, so you may want to slow down here and really take your time finding the correct answer.  Speaking of the test being difficult, with a CAT, it is often a good sign if the test was hard because it means you moved into the harder question set, which means your score will be higher than if you stayed in the easier questions.  

Wrong Answer Penalties

On some exams, the SAT for example, there is an actual reduction in total points from the exam for an incorrect answer.  On these exams, not giving an answer is better than giving the incorrect answer, as a blank will receive no deduction in points.  The reason for this is to discourage people from guessing on these tests, and eliminating the "luck factor" of guessing on a multiple choice exam. While there is a penalty for guessing on some exams, that doesn't mean "guessing" is always a bad idea.  If you are taking an exam with a wrong answer penalty, then you certainly should not just blindly guess at an answer when you don't know it.  However, if you are reasonably sure of an answer, but maybe not 100 percent, then it may be good idea to trust your instincts and preparation and give that answer. A test prep book for your exam will usually help you come up with a decision algorithm for guessing; for example, "Guess if you have narrowed it down to two possible answers."  

Know the Score

Knowing how an exam is going to be scored can be an important part of preparation for a test, as it can easily change what the test-taker prepares, and in what manner they prepare to take the exam. So be sure to review the point breakdown of whatever exam you're taking. This will allow you to focus your preparation on those sections which will be weighing the most heavily on your final exam score. Many exams will publish an "Exam Blueprint" online that specifies which subjects are weighted more heavily.