Absolute versus comparative assessment

Absolute versus comparative assessment

Are you an experienced teacher, juggling assessment types and methods easily, but still looking for some inspiration? Or are you more of a casual passerby, not knowing what some of the terms you come across on this website mean? In either case, you’ve come to the right place! In this column, we provide an overview of testing and assessment methods, explain jargon and scientific terms in simple language, and supplement with some literature suggestions for those who’d like to keep reading. We start off with absolute versus comparative assessment.


Knowledge is easily assessed through closed-ended or multiple-choice questions. After all, in this case the answer can only be right or wrong. Competencies and complex skills, on the other hand, are much more difficult to score. To evaluate writing skills, for example, teachers have a range of assessment methods at their disposal. These assessment methods can be roughly divided into two dimensions. On the one hand you have absolute versus comparative assessment. On the other hand, you have analytical versus holistic assessment.

Absolute assessment methods

With absolute assessment methods, the product to be assessed is approached as something unique. Consequently, it is also assessed as a product in its own right, separate from other pieces of work. Assessment is usually done using a competency statement or criteria list. Absolute assessments, however, are difficult for evaluators to assess because the evaluators have no insight into the possible variations in quality. Thus, evaluators are not sure about which score belongs to which quality.

Comparative assessment methods

Opposed to absolute assessment methods are comparative assessment methods. These methods work in line with how our brains work. We naturally make comparisons when we make decisions. For example, you will never walk into a shoe store with a typed-out criteria list on which you are going to judge all the shoes. Rather, without thinking about it, you will compare pairs of shoes among themselves, or compare that one pair with an ideal image in your mind. This principle is called comparative judgement.

Through comparative judgement, a product is explicitly situated in relation to other products. You can use this method when comparing any task to any other task, when comparing tasks to anchor tasks, or when making pairwise comparisons.

Want to read more?

Coertjens, L., Lesterhuis, M., Verhavert, S., Van Gasse, R., & De Maeyer, S. (2017). Teksten beoordelen met criterialijsten of via paarsgewijze vergelijking: een afweging van betrouwbaarheid en tijdsinvestering. Pedagogische Studiën, 94(4), 283–303.

Pollitt, A. (2012). The method of adaptive comparative judgement. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 19(3), 281–300. link

van Daal, T., Lesterhuis, M., Coertjens, L., Donche, V., & De Maeyer, S. (2016). Validity of comparative judgement to assess academic writing: examining implications of its holistic character and building on a shared consensus. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 1–16. link

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