Is that the first thought that comes to mind at the mention of administering beginning-of-the-year benchmarks to your students? If so, you’re certainly not alone—today’s students and teachers are faced with no shortage of assessments, all of which come with their own unique set of pressures and expectations. But, before you write off the idea, it’s important to consider the reasoning behind benchmark assessments, and the value they can provide.
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.
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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.
So, what’s the best way to actually go about implementing a benchmark assessment strategy? Here are four best practice tips to help you get started:
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. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.