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Using performance level descriptors to ensure consistency and comparability in standard -setting

Dafter January Khembo, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The need for fair and comparable performance standards in high-stakes examinations cannot be overstated. For examination results to be comparable over time, uniform performance standards need to be applied to different cohorts of students taking different forms of the examination. The motivation to conduct a study on maintenance of the Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) performance standards arose following the observation by the Presidential Commission of Enquiry into the MSCE Results that the examination was producing fluctuating results whose cause could not be identified and explained, except for blaming the standard setting procedure that was in use. This study was conducted with the following objectives: (1) to see if use of performance level descriptors could ensure consistency in examination standards; (2) to assess the role of training of judges in standard setting; and (3) to examine the impact of judges' participation in scoring students' written answers prior to being involved in setting examination standards. To maintain examination standards over years means assessing different cohorts of students taking different forms of the examination using common criteria. In this study, common criteria, in the form of performance level descriptors, were developed and applied to the 2002 and 2003 MSCE Mathematics examination, using the item score string estimation (ISSE) standard setting method. Twenty MSCE mathematics experts were purposely identified and trained to use the method. Results from the study demonstrated that performance level descriptors, especially when used in concert with test equating, can help greatly determine grading standards that can be maintained from year to year by reducing variability in performance standards due to ambiguity about what it means to achieve each grade category. It has also been shown in this study that preparing judges to set performance standards is an important factor for producing quality standard setting results. At the same time, the results did not support a recommendation for judges to gain experience as scorers prior to participating in standard setting activities.

Subject Area

Educational evaluation

Recommended Citation

Khembo, Dafter January, "Using performance level descriptors to ensure consistency and comparability in standard -setting" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3136746.