Global Database on Child Growth and Malnutrition


The Z-score or standard deviation classification system

There are three different systems by which a child or a group of children can be compared to the reference population: Z-scores (standard deviation scores), percentiles, and percent of median. For population-based assessment—including surveys and nutritional surveillance—the Z-score is widely recognized as the best system for analysis and presentation of anthropometric data because of its advantages compared to the other methods (5). At the individual level, however, although there is substantial recognition that Z-score is the most appropriate descriptor of malnutrition, health and nutrition centers (e.g. supplementary feeding programmes in refugee camps) have been in practice reluctant to adopt its use for individual assessment. A detailed description of the three systems, including a discussion of their strengths and weaknesses, can be found elsewhere (5, 14).

In this database, weight-for-height, height-for-age and weight-for-age are interpreted by using the Z-score classification system. The Z-score system expresses the anthropometric value as a number of standard deviations or Z-scores below or above the reference mean or median value. A fixed Z-score interval implies a fixed height or weight difference for children of a given age. For population-based uses, a major advantage is that a group of Z-scores can be subjected to summary statistics such as the mean and standard deviation. The formula for calculating the Z-score is (5):

Z-score (or SD-score) = (observed value - median value of the reference population) / standard deviation value of reference population

Interpreting the results in terms of Z-scores has several advantages:

  • The Z-score scale is linear and therefore a fixed interval of Z-scores has a fixed height difference in cm, or weight difference in kg, for all children of the same age. For example, on the height-for-age distribution for a 36-month-old boy, the distance from a Z-score of -2 to a Z-score of -1 is 3.8 cm. The same difference is found between a Z-score of 0 and a Z-score of +1 on the same distribution. In other words, Z-scores have the same statistical relation to the distribution of the reference around the mean at all ages, which makes results comparable across ages groups and indicators.
  • Z-scores are also sex-independent, thus permitting the evaluation of children's growth status by combining sex and age groups.
  • These characteristics of Z-scores allow further computation of summary statistics such as means, standard deviations, and standard error to classify a population's growth status.