The Benchmark Test… Why?

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The Working Definition of the Benchmark Test: A test that shows how much of the entire course curriculum a student has mastered at a particular point during the year.  For example, the 9-week Benchmark Test provides an indication of how much of the entire course content a student has mastered after nine weeks of school. 

The unasked and unanswered question is, “What is the value of a benchmark test?”

There is a short answer and a long answer. Here is the short answer:

Most benchmark tests are a waste of instructional time and debilitating superstitious instructional practice.

The long answer explains why the above ”short answer” is, in fact, the case.

There are two times during the year when a benchmark is appropriate:

1. The end of the year.  At the end of the year there should be a common, cumulative assessment that gives an indication of how much of the content for the course was mastered.  This test can be the State’s EOC (End of Course Exam), or for courses that do not have an EOC, it can be the district final.  The data from the EOC/Final then informs the current grade level teachers on what is working and what should shored up going into the next year.  The data also informs the teachers in the next grade what learning deficits need to be addressed and what the student seemingly has learned.

2. At the end of the first semester, there can be a benchmark.  This provides teachers with an idea of how much progress has actually been made and what still needs to be addressed in the upcoming semester.  This benchmark should be disguised as the semester final.  The majority of the questions on the final should address covered material. But embedded in the final there are key preview questions.  Just don’t grade the preview questions.  The results on the preview questions are for staff use only.

Any additional benchmark tests that are administered during the year are simply a waste of instructional time. 

Why are benchmarks debilitating superstitious behavior? 

The answer is that students (especially at-risk students) should not be expected to know what we have not taught.  Any benchmark (other than the EOC), by definition covers “to be taught” material.  When students do poorly (the logical outcome) on the benchmark, it demoralizes students and makes teachers defensive.  Yet, we feel compelled to keep engaging in the process… debilitating superstitious behavior.

The bottom line: Teach more; Assess quickly; Benchmark less.

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