How to Set Cutoff Scores for Knowledge Tests Used in Promotion, Training, Certification, and Licensing

By Biddle, Richard E. | Public Personnel Management, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

How to Set Cutoff Scores for Knowledge Tests Used in Promotion, Training, Certification, and Licensing


Biddle, Richard E., Public Personnel Management


Why not set the cutoff score at 70 percent? That score has been used as passing throughout elementary school, junior high school, high school, and college. Most people are familiar with a 70 percent cutoff because of our experiences in the school system. If a score has been used for so long as a standard, why change it? Why challenge it? I have heard judges ask these questions, administrators, attorneys, and analysts.

The specific score that is used as the cutoff is what separates those who pass a test from those who do not. It is this score that determines the consequences of taking the test. Those who take a test and do not reach the cutoff score are not considered further for promotion. Or if the test is the conclusion to a training course, by missing the cutoff score, the person may have to take the training again. If the test is for certification, scoring below the cutoff means having to try again for certification. Failing the licensing test means having to wait another six months or a year to take the test again, and, perhaps, not getting a substantial pay increase.

The time that an unsuccessful test taker has to wait before taking a test again will vary. Two years is a common time period between test administrations when litigation is not involved. However, when litigation has been involved, hundreds of employees working for one employer waited 11 years between promotional tests. Hundreds of others employees have had to wait 6 years between promotional tests due to delays resulting from litigation.

A line must be drawn somewhere to distinguish between those who possess enough knowledge to pass a training course, to be considered further for promotion, to be certified, or to be licensed. It is the specific score called the cutoff score that creates the two classes of people: those who pass and those who fail. The group who passes rarely sues. Litigation comes from the group failing a test. But not for the litigants, 70 percent might still be a universally acceptable cutoff score for promotional tests, training tests, certification tests, and tests used for licensing.

Litigation, however, requires responses to penetrating questions directed to the person in charge of the test. These questions come in the form of interrogatories (written questions from the opposing party's attorney that must be answered under penalty of perjury), at depositions (a sit down session in a private office after receiving a subpoena where the opposing party's attorney verbally asks questions and a court reporter carefully takes down the reply), and court testimony where the opposing party's attorney cross examines the person testifying (asks questions of a party under oath in a court room after direct testimony has been given by that party). Questions asked will deal with the job analysis, test construction, validation procedures, and how the cutoff was determined.

If a minimum cutoff score is to be set, it makes sense to gather data needed to set the score in a defensible way and to consider the factors that incite litigation. See Cascio (1988) for a discussion of the factors. For a discussion of how the burdens are followed in court cases after the United States Supreme Court decision of Wards Cove Packing v. Atonio see Biddle (1989).

The purpose of this paper is to suggest a process for setting a cutoff on knowledge tests used for promotion, training, certification, and licensing. The suggested cutoff setting process incorporates the advantages of the job related process reviewed by the United States Supreme Court, adds some job related features to it, then combines the modified job related process with a distribution-wide adverse impact analysis. The process described in this paper starts immediately after the job analysis, test specification, and test development work have been completed.

Job Related Cutoff Setting Process

Uniform Guidelines Requirement

The Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures (1978) give us only vague guidance stating that when setting cutoff scores they should "normally be set so as to be reasonable and consistent with normal expectations of acceptable proficiency within the work force. …

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