What I’d Like to Tell My Students About Benchmark Testing

When it becomes too much to tow the party line.

With the school year moving toward the blessed, blessed end, everything is winding down…except testing. Students all over the country will spend hours this month taking a norm-referenced, computer-based, adaptive “benchmark” test intended to show students’ progress in a variety of standards.

My school’s pretty anxious about benchmark scores, because they’re written into our charter and we are required to show improvement. This, despite the fact that the assessment is seriously flawed, the standard deviation is huge, and generally speaking even the best teacher should expect about half her kids to do worse than they did in the last testing session. Moreover, we’re doing this the last week of school, and we’re also required to give cumulative finals in all core areas. Our poor kids don’t stand a chance. I’m trying to toe the party line, but I’m having trouble with this.

I’m Supposed to Say: This test will really help us, guys! It’ll help your teachers determine what you’ve mastered and where you’re struggling, so we can make sure you’re learning exactly what you need to know.
I Actually Say: Oh, you got a 713 in math and an 841 in reading? Um, that’s…good? Maybe?
I Want to Say: This test is not aligned to the same standards as our state standardized test, nor is it in the same format. It’s not even scored in a similar way. The scores have such a wide range that they’re basically meaningless, and even though we went through hours of training to interpret them, I don’t know a single teacher in the school who can tell you what these scores actually signify.

I’m Supposed to Say: It’s really important that you do your best on this. Get a good night’s sleep and eat a healthy breakfast the morning of the test!
I Actually Say: I know you’ve got final exams this week, and I know you’re basically tapped out for the year. I’ll make you a deal: if you’ll actually try on the benchmark test instead of blowing it off completely, I’ll give you a super easy final and no homework all week. Deal?
I Want to Say: I am so sorry.  I don’t think that educational abuse is actually a term people use, but it definitely applies to benchmark testing. Making you take hours more tests on top of final exams just two weeks after you finish state testing is brutal and morally reprehensible. I’d fix it for you if I could.

I’m Supposed to Say: This is a great opportunity to show what you know and demonstrate how much you’ve learned this year!
I Actually Say: No, I’m sorry, you can’t use the classroom computers to research your social studies project. Nobody is allowed to use the internet during benchmark testing. Just work on it at home. You don’t have internet at home? Well…good luck. Maybe the public library?
I Want to Say: Benchmark testing is the reason we can’t do assemblies or watch the movie I’d planned or do any kind of research project or have class outside or do a host of other things, because once again testing is prioritized over instruction.


I’m Supposed to Say: This helps us determine which parts of the standardized test you’re ready for and where you need more work.  It’s going to make standardized testing so much easier for you!
I Actually Say: You’re right. Your grade in my class is a much better predictor of how you’ll do on standardized testing than the benchmark test. But you have to take it anyway, so just try to prove you learned something, okay?
I Want to Say: This test predicts whether you’ll pass state standardized testing with about 80% accuracy. I could do better than that if I’d never met you, just by looking at your family’s annual income.

I’m Supposed to Say: It’s important that you do well on this.
I Actually Say: It’s important that you do well on this.
I Want to Say:  It’s importantfor methat you do well on this. This test isn’t actually about showing what you’ve learned; it’s about showing what we’ve taught. We’re not measuring your success here, we’re measuring the success of the teachers and the school, and we need you to perform in order to keep the doors open and the lights on.

We’ll make it through benchmark testing. I’ll bribe the kids with snacks and frequent class breaks and a lack of homework, and somehow we’ll all survive. Most of them will do worse this time around, since it’s far from optimal testing conditions, so there will be a meeting in which we’re all reprimanded for not impressing the importance of this test on the kids.

This problem isn’t unique to my school; this test is HUGE, and more schools are using it every year. For every school that uses the test, it’s three extra weeks of testing for the kids, three weeks that school computers are unavailable for student use, not to mention the thousands of dollars systems shell out for the testing system.  I’m convinced that someday, common sense will prevail and those in charge will realize that it’s impossible to teach kids when we spend all our time and resources on assessments. Until then, I’ll keep biting my tongue—as much as I can—and trying to squeeze in a little quality instruction during the breaks between tests.