Assessment Systems: Benchmark Role

What is a comprehensive assessment system?

Benchmark assessment is one component of a comprehensive assessment system that provides the important data needed by teachers or administrators to serve district, school, and classroom improvement needs.  The National Research Council defines a quality assessment system as one that is:
  • coherent
  • comprehensive
  • continuous (NRC, 2001).
All components of a coherent system are aligned with the key goals (standards) for student learning.  A comprehensive assessment system addresses a full range of knowledge and skills expected by standards.  It provides different users at different levels in the system (district, school, classroom) with the right kinds of data, at the right level of detail, to help with decision-making. A system that is continuous provides on-going streams of information about student learning throughout the year. Assessment data from a coherent, comprehensive and continuous system help educators monitor student learning by establishing a rich and productive foundation for understanding student achievement.

Role of benchmark assessments in a comprehensive assessment system

Annual state assessments provide information on how students are doing relative to annual learning standards, i.e., long-term learning goals.   Formative assessment is embedded in classroom instruction and provides immediate information on short-term learning goals.   Formative assessment data can help teachers plan instruction.  Benchmark assessments occupy a middle position in the assessment spectrum.  They are strategically located and administered outside daily classroom use but inside the school and district curriculum.  Typically uniform in timing and content across classrooms and schools, benchmark assessments provide results that can be aggregated at the classroom, grade, school and district levels.  This information, when provided to school and district decision-makers and teachers, serves as an interim indication of how well students are learning and raises important questions regarding instructional program and practice impact.  It can promote action to accelerate progress toward annual goals and provide more immediate information that can be used to help plan and guide subsequent instruction at the school and classroom level.

Interrelationships between formative, benchmark, and annual assessments

The graphic below highlights the interrelationships between three types of assessments—formative, benchmark, and annual—in a comprehensive assessment system.   The learning targets assessed by frequent formative assessment in the classroom build toward the longer-term targets addressed by periodic benchmark assessments. Benchmark data inform teaching and learning that occurs prior to the annual assessment, which in turn transfers into subsequent years of teaching, learning and assessment. Notice how the smaller, more frequent assessments build on and support each other to keep learning moving forward.

Teachers' on-going formative assessment processes on a daily and weekly basis provide feedback that supports student learning toward school benchmark assessments and then toward end-of-year standards and accountability tests.