Race Norming

Race norming is the practice of converting individual test scores to percentile or standard scores within one’s racial group. In the process of race norming, an individual’s percentile score is not calculated in reference to all persons who took the test; instead, an individual’s percentile score is determined only in reference to others in the same racial group. After norming scores by percentile in separate racial groups, the lists are combined to make selection decisions. By norming within racial groups, the same raw score for Whites and Blacks can be converted to different percentile scores based on the distribution of scores for each racial group.

For example, suppose that a White candidate and a Black candidate each earn a raw score of 74 points on a test. If the White candidate’s test score is converted to a percentile only in reference to other White candidates and the Black candidate’s test score is converted to a percentile only in reference to other Black candidates, then the percentile scores earned by the two candidates may not be equal even though they attained the same raw test score. Perhaps the 74-point raw score for the White candidate may be at the 60th percentile of the White distribution of scores, whereas the 74-point score for the Black candidate may be at the 65th percentile of the Black distribution of scores. When the White and Black percentile scores are combined into a common list and selection decisions are made, the candidates who scored the same 74 raw points on the test might be treated very differently. For example, if the organization decides to hire only persons who scored at the 65th percentile and above, then the Black candidate would be selected and the White candidate would not. In another circumstance, the organization could decide to hire persons with the highest percentile first, which would mean that the Black candidate would be selected prior to the White candidate.

As this example demonstrates, when test scores are race normed, the score required to reach a particular percentile score for a member of one group may be different from the score required for a member of another group to reach that percentile. In effect, the use of separate norms based on race can add points to the scores of persons from a particular racial group. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 made approaches to adjusting test scores based on race illegal.

The adjustment of scores using within-group norming procedures or other techniques is a common practice in work organizations. For example, many civil service exams call for bonus points to be awarded to veterans. Despite the prevalence of score adjustment, the concept of adjusting scores based on race (e.g., race norming) became controversial during the 1980s. At the time, the United States Employment Service (USES) made extensive use of the General Aptitude Test Battery (GATB) for hiring purposes. Research has demonstrated that Whites significantly outperform Blacks and Hispanics on the GATB; therefore, the USES race normed the data by converting test scores to percentiles within racial groups. During the mid-1980s, this practice was challenged by the U.S. Department of Justice, and it eventually became a key issue addressed in the Civil Rights Act of 1991. The act makes it unlawful to adjust or alter the scores of an employment test or to use different cutoff scores based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

The ramifications of this provision, both intended and unintended, have generated much discussion, and experts continue to debate how the provision should be interpreted and implemented.


  1. Gottfredson, L. S. (1994). The science and politics of race-norming. American Psychologist, 49(11), 955-963.
  2. Sackett, P. R., & Wilk, S. L. (1994). Within-group norming and other forms of score adjustment in preemployment testing. American Psychologist, 49(11), 929-954.

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