Benchmark Assessments: Weighing the Pig More Often?

There is an old saying about educational assessment: “If you want to fatten a pig, it doesn’t help to weigh it more often.”

To be fair, it may actually help to weigh pigs more often, so the farmer knows whether they are gaining weight at the expected levels. Then they can do something in time if this is not the case.

It is surely correct that weighing pigs does no good in itself, but it may serve a diagnostic purpose. What matters is not the weighing, but rather what the farmer or veterinarian does based on the information provided by the weighing.

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This blog is not, however, about porcine policy, but educational policy. In schools, districts, and even whole states, most American children take “benchmark assessments” roughly three to six times a year. These assessments are intended to tell teachers, principals, and other school leaders how students are doing, especially in reading and math. Ideally, benchmark assessments are closely aligned with state accountability tests, making it possible for school leaders to predict how whole grade levels are likely to do on the state tests early enough in the year to enable them to provide additional assistance in areas of need. The information might be as detailed as “fourth graders need help in fractions” or “English learners need help in vocabulary.”

Benchmark assessments are only useful if they improve scores on state accountability tests. Other types of intervention may be beneficial even if they do not make any difference in state test scores, but it is hard to see why benchmark assessments would be valuable if they do not in fact have any impact on state tests, or other standardized tests.

So here is the bad news: Research finds that benchmark assessments do not make any difference in achievement.

High-quality, large scale randomized evaluations of benchmark assessments are relatively easy to do. Many have in fact been done. Use of benchmark assessments have been evaluated in elementary reading and math (see www.bestevidence.org). Here is a summary of the findings.

Number of Studies Mean Effect Size
Elementary Reading 6 -0.02
Elementary Math 4    .00
Study-weighted mean 10 -0.01

In a rational world, these findings would put an end to benchmark assessments, at least as they are used now. The average outcomes are not just small, they are zero. They use up a lot of student time and district money.

In our accountability-obsessed educational culture, how could use of benchmark assessments make no difference at all on the only measure they are intended to improve? I would suggest several possibilities.

First, perhaps the most likely, is that teachers and schools do not do much with the information from benchmark assessments. If you are trying to lose weight, you likely weigh yourself every day. But if you then make no systematic effort to change your diet or increase your exercise, then all those weighings are of little value. In education, the situation is much worse than in weight reduction, because teachers are each responsible for 20-30 students. Results of benchmark assessments are different for each student, so a school staff that learns that its fourth graders need improvement in fractions finds it difficult to act on this information. Some fourth graders in every school are excelling in fractions, some just need a little help, and some are struggling in fractions because they missed the prerequisite skills. “Teach more fractions” is not a likely solution except for some of that middle group, yet differentiating instruction for all students is difficult to do well.

Another problem is that it takes time to score and return benchmark assessments, so by the time a team of teachers decides how to respond to benchmark information, the situation has moved on.

Third, benchmark assessments may add little because teachers and principals already know a lot more about their students than any test can tell them. Imagine a principal receiving the information that her English learners need help in vocabulary. I’m going to guess that she already knows that. But more than that, she and her teachers know which English learners need what kind of vocabulary, and they have other measures and means of finding out. Teachers already give a lot of brief, targeted curriculum-linked assessments, and they always have. Further, wise teachers stroll around and listen in on students working in cooperative groups, or look at their tests or seatwork or progress on computer curriculum, to get a sophisticated understanding of why some students are having trouble, and ideas for what to do about it. For example, it is possible that English learners are lacking school-specific vocabulary, such as that related to science or social studies, and this observation may suggest solutions (e.g., teach more science and social studies). But what if some English learners are afraid or unwilling to express themselves in class, but sit quietly and never volunteer answers? A completely different set of solutions might be appropriate in this case, such as using cooperative learning or tutoring strategies to give students safe spaces in which to use the vocabulary they have, and gain motivation and opportunities to learn and use more.

Benchmark assessments fall into the enormous category of educational solutions that are simple, compelling, and wrong. Yes, teachers need to know what students are learning and what is needed to improve it, but they have available many more tools that are far more sensitive, useful, timely, and tied to actions teachers can take.

Eliminating benchmark assessments would save schools a lot of money. Perhaps that money could be redirected to professional development to help teachers use approaches actually proven to work. I know, that’s crazy talk. But perhaps if we looked at what students are actually doing and learning in class, we could stop weighing pigs and start improving teaching for all children.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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7 thoughts on “Benchmark Assessments: Weighing the Pig More Often?

  1. Do you know if there are similar data for secondary schools?

    It seems like students might have a greater capacity to meaningfully self-direct with the data provided by short-cycle assessments, but I’d be surprised if it was a statistically significant effect size.

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  2. Reblogged this on education pathways and commented:
    As a practicing teacher, I always thought benchmark assessments were worthless and that I had more in-depth knowledge about a child’s progress than would be demonstrated on an exam. Boots on the ground are so important! This is an excellent blog post to explain the effectiveness of benchmark assessments.

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  3. Link to the study? I did not find the data on bestevidence.org. Point to specific studies or meta-analysis would be beneficial.

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  4. They also don’t work because of the response of the child. You give a child a low score they rarely turn around, thank you for the insight and proceed to work on what the test identified as a weakness. This is what we teachers hope would happen, in reality we confirm a “belief” in their lack of ability and they live out this prophecy in the state test. Research backs this as observable trend of a low grade.

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