What is ipsative assessment and why would I use it?
Posted by John Kleeman
As I’m writing this, I’ve just got back from the gym, where I beat my personal best distance on an exercise bike. What’s this got to do with computerized assessment, you might ask? Hear me out.
You’re probably familiar with norm-referenced testing and criterion-referenced testing :
- A norm-referenced test compares a test-taker against his or her peers. For example, you might compare my results with those of my Questionmark colleagues. (If you did, then seeing how energetic many are in the gym, I suspect my performance would not compare well!)
- A criterion-referenced test measures a test-taker against external criteria. For example, it might be that people of a certain age should be expected to reach a certain distance in a certain time on an exercise bike.
- An ipsative assessment in an education/learning context compares a test-taker’s results against his or her previous results. This is how I measure myself at the gym – I am pleased that I am doing better than I have before. I’m not worried if this meets some external criteria or if I’m better or worse than other people.
It’s very common to use criterion-referenced tests as computerized assessments because they help us measure competence. If you want to be sure that your employees know the rules, if you want to validate a pilot to fly a plane, or if you want to check that someone has understood training, a criterion-referenced test is usually the way to go.
But an advantage of ipsative assessment is that it measures progress and development – a test-taker can see if he or she is improving and whether or not he/she is taking advantage of feedback from previous assessments. Using ipsative assessment can help all test-takers improve: A weaker performer will be encouraged by seeing performance improvements over earlier attempts, and a stronger performer can be challenged to do better. This can deal with the risks of the weaker performer becoming demotivated from a poor test result and the strong performer complacent from a good one. Ipsative assessment can be used for objective measures (e.g. did I get a better score?) and also for more subjective measures (e.g. am I more confident about something?).
Questionmark software makes it easy to produce coaching reports on each attempt at an assessment, and these can easily be used to allow test-takers to compare results from previous attempts and see how they’ve improved. This is particularly useful for observational assessments, which measure skill and performance – areas where everyone wants to improve and there can never be a perfect score.
To learn more on ipsative assessment in education and learning, one resource is this study by Dr Gwyneth Huges of the Institute of Education. (As a heads-up, the term ipsative measure is also used in a different, technical way in psychological testing as a within-person measure.)
Expertise is built up by deliberate practice, and being tested can help identify where that practice is needed. I think it’s helpful for all of us to remember that progress and improvement is a useful thing to measure as well as achievement and competency.