What Is a Benchmark Test in Education?

If you ask average people what their opinion is on testing in schools, they may have a lot to say on the matter. While there tends to be a negative connotation associated with test taking, it's often necessary in order to ensure that students are where they need to be in the various stages of learning. There are many different types of quizzes, tests and exams that students will need to take throughout their academic career, but none are as important as benchmark tests, which can tell the teacher and parents a lot about how the child is performing (or failing to perform) in multiple subjects.

What Is a Benchmark Test?

No two students perform the same way in school. And when a teacher has a class full of 20 students, they have to do their best to make sure all their students are understanding the information that's being taught. Some students, of course, learn easier and faster than others. Teachers, therefore, need to be able to effectively differentiate their instruction so that all students have an opportunity to meet the same standards, including students with learning disabilities, as well as students who are gifted. If educators want to know whether or not their students are performing up to where they need be, then they can use a benchmark test to make that determination. Benchmarking is the act of creating measurable standards set for learning on which students can be measured.

Benchmarking helps to keep students on track for success, and can ultimately raise the standards for education in a classroom, grade level, school or school district. Benchmark tests come in all forms, but generally speaking, they're tests that are given after a certain unit is taught, a grade is completed, or they're given as a subject level evaluation. For instance, standardized tests like the New York State Regents Exams are considered benchmark tests, but so are smaller tests given by a kindergarten teacher in Language Arts. Benchmark tests, therefore, need to be the same across the board, in order to have a way to truly understand and compare performance levels among students.

What Is a Benchmark Study?

A benchmark study is what's happening outside the benchmark testing itself. It's taking a look at the process of benchmarking over a school year at a minimum, which involves instruction, review, practice, testing and finally, evaluation. Students are expected to pass their benchmark tests, otherwise, they may have to return back to the beginning of the unit or at least review some key concepts. If a number of students are collectively not passing their benchmark tests, then it's clear that something is failing in the system, which is something evaluators can learn from the benchmark study. Likewise, if students continue to do well on their classroom benchmark tests, then it's likely they will also score well on state benchmark tests too. The benchmark study, then, can tell school administrators a lot about how their school district is performing, and whether or not changes needed to be made to the status quo.

The Importance of Benchmark Testing in Education

There are many reasons why benchmark testing in education is so essential in the lives of students. For starters, without benchmarks, teachers wouldn't really have any ideas as to whether or not their students are grasping the material. They may even have a hard time figuring out what they need to teach. By using benchmarks, teachers can learn about what may need to be reviewed with each individual student, as well as which students could benefit from being challenged just a little bit more.

Benchmarks ultimately allow students in the same class to reach the standards set out by the state or the school district. Without these standards, students are at risk of being pushed from one grade level into the next, without having ever really grasped the material they should have learned in the previous grade level.

Benchmark tests are also extremely helpful for students who have to move from one school district to another. Because standards are a little different in each school, as well as sometimes dramatically different between each state, benchmarks tell the student's next teacher whether or not this student would fit well in the class. Ideally, if all benchmarks are done correctly, then theoretically, all students in the United States would be able to graduate with all the knowledge they need to have to be successful, along with an equal chance of getting into college as all of their peers.

Common Core in Benchmark Testing

How does a school district or state dictate which standards students should be meeting at each grade level? Well, for many years, that was very difficult, considering education is conducted on the state level, not the federal level. This meant that every state had different standards, so if a student moved from one state to another, there was a good chance that student was either ahead or behind their new classmates.

The Common Core Initiative, despite the fact it's been a highly controversial issue, was put forth with the notion in mind that all students in the United States would be essentially on the same page as far as their learning. Common Core Standards were designed by experts in the field who set guidelines, that if followed, would mean that students are prepared for success after high school. The standards tell teachers what to teach in each grade so that each and every lesson should be taught aligned to these Common Core Standards. Benchmark testing coincides directly with Common Core Standards, as benchmark tests allow teachers to see whether or not students are meeting them.

Examples of Benchmarks in Education

Depending on the state or school district you live in, the benchmark tests that are given will be different than somewhere else, even with the Common Core Standards in place. The types of tests in education vary. That being said, the examples of benchmarks in education that exist should be more or less the same from one school to the next, even though teachers are free to create their own benchmark tests themselves. All teachers must have experience delivering benchmark tests, otherwise, they will not be able to understand whether or not their teaching has been effective:

  • CBMReading Tests
  • Running records
  • Standardized tests (NWEA in Connecticut, NJASK in New Jersey)
  • A math unit test
  • A comprehensive ELA exam

What Is a Benchmark Score?

Benchmark scores differ depending on the test that is given. For instance, in a running record, teachers need to mark how many words the student can accurately read in a book. Usually, certain leveled books already come with running record sheets that the teacher can mark while the child is reading. Based on how many errors the child has and why they have made those errors, the teacher can determine the child's accuracy rate for the test, and thus give them a benchmark score. Every benchmark test has its own scoring system which is supposed to give the teacher or scorer a clear answer as to whether or not the child has reached the appropriate benchmark for the child's grade level.

What Happens If You Don't Pass the Benchmark

The whole point of implementing a benchmark study is so that students can stay on the right path, reaching the learning expectations set out for them. Benchmark tests should be given at least three times a year in the core subjects, this way teachers can know right away if the student is struggling.

For instance, if you wait until the end of the year to give a benchmark test, then there's no time left to go back and find out where the child had trouble and thereby fix the problem. When a benchmark test is given three times a year or more, there's no need to worry if the child fails. All this means is that the child missed something somewhere, and therefore needs additional instruction. The teacher can then go in and do an intervention with the child, working one-on-one or in a group setting to help him or her get to where he or she needs to be. After this, another benchmark test can be implemented to see if that intervention was effective.

Talking to Students About Benchmark Tests

When you tell students that they have a test coming up, they can react in different ways. Some students may be excited about taking a test because they feel as though they know the information well, and it will, therefore, be a chance for them to prove themselves. But for other students, taking a test can be a stressful experience. Depending on the age of the students, the best way to talk to them about taking a test is simply by being transparent. Be very honest about when the test will take place and why it needs to be done. Give students the space to ask questions about the test, but at the same time, try not to use any language that will induce anxiety.

For instance, a teacher could say something like, "Hi boys and girls! So, over the next few weeks, Mrs. Smith and I will be doing a little test with each one of you, so I can see how hard you've been working on your reading skills! During the test, I will be taking some notes, just to understand more about how you read. But there's no need to worry! Just bring your best self to the table and read to me like you're reading at home in your bedroom!"

The Problem with Benchmark Tests

Overall, benchmark tests work very well in terms of helping both teachers and students reach the goals that are set out for students. When benchmark tests are equal in schools around the country, then theoretically, they will be effective in making sure students reach a college-readiness level that's in line with their peers.

Unfortunately, it's not always as easy as it sounds. Some schools simply have more funding than others, which means they have the means, whether that be great teachers, school supplies or technology in the classroom, to support their students in reaching their benchmarks. If students come from homes where parents are from a higher socioeconomic status, they can also support their children outside of the classroom, thereby increasing their chances of being successful.

But for students that grow up in school districts that have less funding, they may have a more difficult time getting the support they need to be successful. This can also happen when students have parents that work full-time, who may not necessarily have a chance to sit with their children every night and help them with their homework. Although these Common Core Standards and benchmark tests are designed to give every student an equal opportunity, they can actually have the opposite effect. Benchmark testing can create a gap in which some schools with more resources will likely achieve better results than schools with fewer resources.