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Does Your Candidate "Make the Cut": Understanding Cut-Off Scores

The term cut-off score refers to the lowest possible score on an exam, or other form of assessment that a test taker must earn to either “pass” or be considered “proficient” and is often used to categorized test takers. The most common example of this is pass/fail, which may be familiar to many with from time in school. For instance, a score of 70% and above will pass, while below 70% will fail. It is the process of determining the minimum score – or the cut score – required on a test to distinguish candidates who are competent in their field, from those who are not. In some cases, tests may have multiple cut-off scores representing tiered levels of proficiency, such as basicproficient, or advanced.

How that cut score is calculated depends on whether candidates are being assessed in comparison to their peers, or assessed on how they perform against the test content. This reflects the two ways that a test score can be interpreted: Norm-referenced and criterion-referenced.

Criterion-Referenced Cut Score

A cut score of this type is referenced to the material of the exam, regardless of examinee performance. In most cases, this is the sort of cut score that you need to be legally defensible for high stakes exams.  Psychometricians have spent a lot of time inventing ways to do this, and scientifically studying them. Names of some methods you might see for this type are: modified-AngoffNedelsky, and Bookmark.


An example of this is a certification exam. If the cut score is 75%, you pass. In some months or years, this might be most candidates, in other months it might be fewer. The standard does not change. In fact, the organizations that manage such exams go to great lengths to keep it stable over time, a process known as equating.

Norm-Referenced Cut Score

A cut score of this type is referenced to the examinees, regardless of their mastery of the material.

A name of this you might see is a quota, such as when a test is delivered to only accept the top 10% of applicants.


An example of this could be a college class that “weeds out” the students in a particular major, like pre-med. So, the exams were intentionally made very hard, so that the average score might only be 50% correct. An A would be awarded to the top 15% of students – regardless of how well they actually scored on the exam. In this example, a test taker might get a score of 60% correct but be 95th percentile and get an A.

Norm-referenced tests are used if a certain portion of test-takers is required to pass the test, and they are then judged against the their peers.

In order for a test to be valid, fair, and legally defensible, organizations must be able to demonstrate that appropriate methodology has been used to determine and validate the cut score.

Most assessments vendors do not the “cut scores” for their assessments. Generally speaking, most systems are designed to allow customers to decide what the method they want to use for evaluating the results – whether it’s based against the average/percentile group (if provided), ranked just against other candidates applying at the same time for that position or ranked against current employees in the position that have been tested to establish an internal company baseline.

As there are multiple ways customers can utilize the results data in evaluating potential candidates, the main thing is to use the same criteria for evaluating all the candidates for a specific position/req/role.

For a comprehensive solution in candidate assessments, consider Talevation. Offering a diverse range of customizable assessments, Talevation helps organizations evaluate essential skills and competencies efficiently. Their platform enhances objectivity and data-driven decision-making in the hiring process. Explore Talevation's offerings for a streamlined approach to candidate selection.