Teaching & Learning

Criterion Referenced Assessment

Criterion referenced assessment (CRA) is the process of evaluating (and grading) the learning of students against a set of pre-specified qualities or criteria, without reference to the achievement of others (Brown, 1998; Harvey, 2004). The pre-specified qualities or criteria are what students have to do during assessment in order to demonstrate that they have achieved the learning outcomes. How well they do this is described at different levels - these are standards (or performance descriptors) often presented in a rubric. Thus, CRA is assessment that has standards which are 'referenced' to criteria.

What is the value of CRA?

Criterion referenced assessment is an important foundation for engaging students with the learning process. When done well, it:

  • provides a shared language between students, teachers, and assessors about assessment
  • identifies what is valued in a curriculum and ensures that what is measured by assessment is the same as the skills, knowledge and understandings defined by the intended learning outcomes
  • makes explicit to students and assessors what evidence of achievement is expected at each of the grade standards (HD, DN, CR, PP, NN)
  • enables reliable and valid judgements about student work which in turn provide:
    • comparability between assessors and streamlined moderation processes
    • relevant feedback to students about the quality of their work, and what is required for improvement on future assessments
    • transparent and defensible marks and grades
  • enables evaluation of how well students have achieved the unit's ILOs, and identification of teaching, learning, and assessment practices that may need review
  • supports students to develop strong self-evaluation capacity, providing tools for them to review, refine, and improve their own work

CRA means that the assessment process is transparent for students and the grades they receive for a unit can be traced to their specific performance on each of the set tasks. Criterion-referencing can also enable reporting of student achievement or progress on a series of key criteria rather than as a single grade or percentage.

What does CRA involve?

  1. Rubrics (criteria sheets) that are provided to students when the assessment task is assigned, and which contain:
    1. Specific criteria for each assessment task in a unit (that enable measurement of ILOs)
    2. Meaningful standards descriptors for each assessment criterion (specific to the task)
  2. Moderation of criteria and standards, and active familiarisation of students with them, prior to submission of the assessment task
  3. Use of the rubric when assessing student work, to assign a grade and provide feedback (and feedforward) to students
  4. Review (and modification) of the criteria and standards descriptors after marking of each assessment task

Further information and examples of CRA can be found in the downloadable Guidelines for Good Assessment Practice (5th edition), and on the pages about Writing Assessment Criteria and Writing Standards Descriptors.

For CRA to be an effective element of constructively aligned units and courses, the assessment criteria for each task need to be aligned with both the intended learning outcomes of the unit and course, as well as with the type of assessment the task is. In addition, the performance standards for each criterion should be specific to the task as well as reflective of the criterion and learning outcome being measured, as overly generic criteria and standards are not useful in communicating to students what is required for a specific task. Find out more on the Writing Assessment Criteria page and the Writing Standards Descriptors page.

Practice and moderation are also essential elements for CRA to be effective and well implemented, and are as important when there is a single assessor as when there are multiple assessors. Discussing with students the meaning of the criteria and standards descriptors ensures that there is a shared understanding of them. Providing examples for students to apply the criteria and standards to can be an effective way of building understanding, as well as self-evaluation and critical analysis skills. Find out more about University requirements for moderation on the Moderation page.


Brown, S. (1998). Criterion-referenced assessment: What role for research. In H. Black & W. Dockerell (Eds.), New developments in educational assessment. British Journal of Educational Psychology, Monograph Series No. 3, 1-14.

Harvey, L. (2004). Analytic quality glossary. Retrieved from http://www.qualityresearchinternational.com/glossary/#c