Benchmark assessments communicate a strong message to students, teachers, and parents about what knowledge and skills are important to learn, what knowledge is valued, and how learning will be measured. Most of us remember asking: "What's going to be on the test?", because as students, we want to do well. Teachers, too, want their students to perform well on assessments. They may thus focus classroom instruction—what they teach—on what will be assessed. Teachers sometimes use the same assessment formats as tests in their teaching. Unintentionally, these assessments communicate that only certain types of knowledge or approaches are valued (see, for example, Herman, 2009). This last quality, how learning is measured and the message it sends about what matters, provides a strong rationale for measuring learning in different ways. It is important to assess students using more than traditional multiple-choice formats, which usually focus on facts. Constructed response items, such as essays, extended multi-part questions, portfolios, or even experiments, can provide important windows into students’ thinking and understanding. Varied assessment tasks can also communicate the expectation to all stakeholders that complex thinking and problem solving are important and should be a part of regular curriculum and instruction.
Benchmark assessments can serve instructional planning purposes by providing educators information needed to develop and adjust curriculum and instruction to meet students’ learning needs. To do so, benchmark assessments must be aligned with content and provide feedback on students’ strengths and weaknesses relative to specific curriculum goals.
Consider, for example, one district's first quarter mathematics benchmark assessment. In the first quarter, fourth grade students learned how whole numbers and decimals relate to fractions. Specifically, students learned about tenths and hundredths in decimal and fraction notations and decimal and fractional equivalents (e.g., 1/2=0.5 or .50). They also studied the conceptual models for how these representations are related. A benchmark assessment that provides good information for planning instruction would provide data on how well students have learned these concepts. Ideally, the assessment would also diagnose challenges students encountered in each focus area. For example, how well can students convert fractions to decimals and how well they can solve problems that require understanding of proportional reasoning? This benchmark assessment would not include items or concepts not taught, such as negative numbers or the multiplication and division of fractions and decimals.
Teachers can use the results from the 1st quarter benchmark assessment to plan subsequent math instruction. When administered across classrooms, grade levels, or content areas, benchmark assessment results provide teachers an opportunity for collaborative reflection, analysis, and action. Leadership teams and school administrators can also use benchmark assessment results to plan and target specific program interventions to support student learning.
Benchmark assessments can also be used to monitor and evaluate learning by providing information on how well current programs, curriculum, or other resources are helping students achieve learning goals. Benchmark assessments can help administrators or educators make mid-course modifications if data show patterns where student performance is lagging or where students are excelling. Benchmark assessme nt data can also be used to highlight areas where a curriculum should be refined or supplemented. For example, benchmark assessment results can help a district or school evaluate the effectiveness of two different approaches to reading or math instruction. It can also serve as an early warning system for an instructional approach that is not meeting its goals.
Districts and schools can also use benchmark data to evaluate patterns and trends in school-by-school or teacher performance. Such data provide guidance for standardizing or adjusting curriculum and instruction across a district if there are substantial differences in performance. Teachers or schools whose students outperform similar students may be asked to share their practices.
Benchmark assessment can provide data to predict whether students, classes, schools and districts are on-course to meet specific year-end goals. That is, based on their current performance, are students likely to reach proficiency on the end of year state test or other annual assessments? Results that predict end of year performance can be disaggregated, or separated, at the individual student, sub-group, classroom, and school levels to identify who needs help. Results provide teachers and administrators with information on how best to go about providing this help.
Once struggling students are identified, steps can be taken to provide additional support and resources. Schools and districts may use benchmark results to re-allocate resources including time, staff, professional development, technical assistance, and special interventions. On the other hand, benchmark assessment results can also identify students or groups who are excelling and may benefit from a more advanced instructional program.
Given the scarcity of time and resources in educational settings, it should come as no surprise that many organizations attempt to use one assessment for multiple purposes. However, the National Research Council warns: “…the more purposes a single assessment aims to serve, the more each purpose is compromised (NRC, 2001, p.53). Thus, caution is strongly advised when using benchmark assessments for more than one purpose.
In line with the NRC's recommendation, researchers (e.g., Herman & Baker, 2004; Perie et al., 2007) suggest that benchmark assessments be selected or designed to fit the level of information needed. For example, benchmark assessments that indicate how many students are proficient in 6th grade writing may not provide enough detail to plan appropriate instruction. Advance planning and careful consideration of the necessary level of detail is essential in selecting or developing benchmark assessments to serve their intended purpose(s).
Once a school, district or state has determined the answers to the questions: What purpose will the benchmark assessment serve?, Who will use the data and how will it inform actions?, the next step in the process is to examine benchmark assessments using a set of guidelines to evaluate their quality.