Educators inherently understand the importance of a balanced assessment system—and ESSA emphasizes that need. But what does a balanced assessment system look like? As an assessment company with an active mission to improve student learning with meaningful assessment, we spend a lot of time thinking about things like this.
The general concept of a balanced assessment system has the ring of common sense, but when we start digging into the components, things aren’t always clear. At Measured Progress, we’re trying to create consistent definitions of assessment terms to make sure we’re working from a common understanding when we talk with clients, colleagues, and decision makers. That’s why we created an infographic that defines the 4 main components of a balanced assessment system:
- Formative assessment practices
- Benchmark assessments
- Interim assessments
- State accountability assessment
You can find our vision of a balanced assessment system, along with some other helpful terms, on our infographic. Also, check out our previous posts on formative resources and interim assessments. Now we’re diving a little deeper into the element of benchmark assessments.
What’s in a name?
Productive discussions depend on a clear understanding of the purpose of each assessment type. One thing we notice about the terms we use for assessments is that they don’t all indicate purpose.
- “Formative” clearly has something to do with development and growth, so it makes sense in the context of ongoing instructional feedback and adjustment. Its purpose is implied.
- “Interim” refers to a period of time; the word doesn’t tell us what is tested or for what purpose.
- General definitions of the word “benchmark” describe a standard or point of reference against which something can be compared or judged.
Benchmark tests are consistent with that definition: Their purpose is to establish a point of reference for determining how well students have learned recently taught material.
Interim and benchmark assessments are both periodic tests. They serve different purposes, though, and cover different ranges of content. Broadly speaking, interim tests are general achievement measures that cover the full year's standards. They monitor progress toward end-of-year goals. Benchmark assessments test students' grasp of the concepts and skills covered in recent instruction. They monitor how well students have learned the current curriculum. (To add another term to the mix, benchmark assessments are also summative tests, because they take place after instruction.)
District assessments, classroom tests
In a state or district’s balanced assessment system, benchmark tests are those that a district administers periodically during the year to determine how successfully students have learned recent material. They follow a school or district’s curriculum and pacing. Some districts create their own programs of benchmark assessments, some purchase them, and some work with an assessment vendor to design a tailored program that fits their specific instructional schedule. (Our District Assessment Services team can help with that.)
Of course, students take more tests than those administered at the state and district level. Teachers give quizzes, unit or chapter tests, and mid-terms—which are also kinds of benchmark tests. They serve their own important purposes: to calculate grades, and to provide valuable information to teachers, students, and parents.
New possibilities with ESSA
As suggested by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states and districts are exploring models to use data from interim or benchmark assessments as part of statewide accountability measures. (ESSA refers to “interim” without detail, and could mean either interim or benchmark assessments as we’ve defined them.) And ESSA clearly articulates an expectation for district educators and other stakeholders to have input in creating innovative programs and planning and implementing assessment systems. Understanding the purpose and role of the various types of assessment—and clarifying our purposes for each test we choose—can help us participate meaningfully in the conversations.