Benchmark Assessments: Best Practices

Oct 31, 2023
Test taking

Benchmark assessments, also frequently called interim assessments, are intended to be something between formative and summative assessments. They are fixed assessments, evaluating students against specific grade-level standards and learning goals rather than simply taking a quick pulse of understanding. 

However, unlike summative assessments, the purpose of benchmarking is not to determine content mastery. Instead, the goal of benchmarking is to identify students’ academic strengths and weaknesses and use that information to guide future instruction, and support success on later summative and high-stakes tests.

With that definition of benchmark assessment in mind, it’s easier to see the potential value, especially at the start of the school year. You already know the curriculum that you’re expected to help your students master throughout the year; benchmarking can help you lesson plan strategically from the start, and tackle that curriculum in the most efficient way to make sure that all of your students are on pace. 

Take it a step further by administering additional benchmark assessments at one or two more intervals throughout the school year, and coupled with data from your more informal day-to-day formative assessments, you can feel confident about identifying your students’ needs and adjusting your instructional approach as necessary to meet them.

How to Implement a Benchmark Assessment Strategy

What’s the best way to implement a benchmark assessment strategy? Here are some suggestions:

1. Keep It Small

Testing is inherently stressful for many students—help your students avoid feeling overwhelmed by breaking up your benchmarking into several phases. Whether you’re teaching all subjects at the elementary level or a specific subject at the secondary level, testing your students on one topic at a time will help them to focus their energy and feel more in control. In addition, educators know that students are bound to lose interest with any long test. Administering benchmark exams in a manageable, single-subject format can help provide a more accurate measure of what knowledge students have already mastered and where they have real gaps in the given subject area.

2. Use Your Data

​​​By leveraging data that you’ve already collected on your students, you can group them accordingly and reteach the areas that need more focus prior to administering benchmark tests. Past data can show you what subject areas students may be struggling in along with what has already been mastered. Using your data to break up your students into smaller groups helps personalize instruction and keep students engaged with the right material for them. ​​​​

3. Help Your Students Prepare in Advance

Even for beginning-of-the-year benchmarking, it’s important to dedicate some class time to review before administering any assessments. Provide a couple of fun, low-stress refresher lessons to prepare your students for what material will be on the benchmark exam and reactivate their prior knowledge. Make sure that they are actively learning, but having fun in the process. Engage your students with hands-on, interactive review work in small or large groups, and create games around the subject you are preparing to test on.

4. Teach Effective Exam Strategies

Knowing the right test-taking practices can make a huge difference for students once they have their benchmark assessment in front of them. Take some class time to review effective test taking strategies with your students, like starting with the questions that they feel most comfortable with (even if that means answering questions out of order), not spending too much time on any single question, and skipping questions that if they don’t know the answer. Remind students that test-taking isn’t a race, and unanswered questions can always be returned to once they are done with the rest of the test.

5. Provide Adequate Time

Before you administer your benchmark assessment, it’s critical to have a realistic idea of how much time students will need to complete the exam. Be sure to provide your students with enough time (err on the side of caution) to take the assessment without feeling rushed. If students do feel rushed, they will be more likely to struggle on the exam due to stress and anxiety. Remind your students of effective time management strategies and encourage them to aim for saving some time at the end of the exam to review their answers.

What To Do With Benchmark Assessment Results

Like any assessment, midyear benchmarks are only as valuable as the strategies you employ using that data. Here are four ways to make the results of these assessments a truly valuable exercise for you and your students.

1. Keep Students Informed

No assessment should be undertaken without treating the students like the stakeholders they are. Even elementary students should be able to employ the testing strategies that work best for them, as well as interpret the data that come from such testing.

Although you have probably been conducting formative assessments throughout the year, your students will be able to tell that midyear benchmarks are a step up—as well they should. Any chance to demonstrate their growth deserves to be taken seriously.

Once testing is complete, spend some time showing students how to gauge their growth using previous data and how to formulate a plan to prepare themselves for the rest of testing season.

2. Provide a view of success

Data study should be far more than just going over the correct answers from the test and showing students graphs of their progress. You should be detailed in explaining the test’s expectations to your students. And, because students just took the test, the memories of what they did will be fresh in their minds, making it easy for them to compare their performance with the objectives.

3. Give students another opportunity for input

Midyear benchmarks are intended to help you make adjustments to instruction—whether in curriculum, grouping, or time allotted for certain skills.

Another way to provide students with some agency in what happens in the classroom is to have them formulate ideas for steps that should be taken based on the new data. They now know where their skills lie and how far they have to go, so it’s only logical to at least hear their ideas for strategies.

This practice generates guaranteed buy-in and engagement with an end-of-the-year push that is stressful for everyone involved.

4. Use assessment season as conference season

The busiest times for parent conferences are at the beginning and end of the school year. Both are valuable, but if those are the only times you meet with parents, you’re missing out on an opportunity to truly affect student growth.

Reach out to parents with data from your midyear benchmarks, explain their student’s growth and the plan moving forward, and provide them with ideas on how they can help. Even if this is done through email or online rather than in person, it enlists another ally in the test-prep process and keeps parents informed during a busy time in the school year.

With these strategies, midyear benchmarks can become an engine for growth, engagement, and partnership that ensure a successful push toward high-stakes testing and the end of the school year.

Learn how Edmentum’s online programs can support your benchmarking efforts with Study Island Benchmark Assessments.

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