Educating students is no small task. The role of the teacher includes not only imparting knowledge to their students, but also training them to read thoughtfully, write cogently, think critically, and act responsibly. In order to achieve these ambitious goals, teachers need insight and skills in determining how their students learn best. And since each student is so unique, many details need to be considered: the social and emotional state of each student, their interest levels, aptitudes, learning gaps, etc. But how do teachers discover the learning needs of their students at the start of school, when most of these children are new to them?

When it comes to creating an inviting, safe learning environment, teachers are naturally skilled at learning student names, encouraging students to share stories about their lives and interests, and providing opportunities for building trust. As every good teacher knows, when students feel safe, connected, and heard, they learn better. This social-emotional aspect of inspiring and encouraging learning generally comes as second nature to caring teachers. But students are not just emotional creatures – they also have cognitive demands that require teachers to determine what their learning strengths and needs are, especially in relation to expected learning outcomes for the school year. This is where benchmark testing can provide valuable insights for teachers on their students’ strengths and learning needs early enough in the school year to intervene effectively.

So, what is Benchmark testing? At the beginning of the school year, it’s beneficial for teachers to discover the level of understanding and skill development that their students have in relation to grade-level learning goals, as well as to other students at the same grade level. High-quality testing companies, like Renaissance Learning, have developed short, interim tests that are designed to measure student progress toward national or state standards in key learning domains, like reading and math. Testing students early in the year provides teachers with a good starting point for instructing their students in the skills and essential understandings that they are expected to master by the end of the school year. It’s important to remember that benchmark assessments are not built to measure mastery – that task is reserved for end-of-year, summative assessments like the CTP that Fairmont administers in the spring.

Following benchmark testing, teachers pull reports that indicate whether students are on target to meet expectations by the end of the year, exceed those expectations, or are struggling to meet the expectations and so need intervention. In addition, being able to see how students compare with peers can help with determining if there are developmental issues or other variables that may be causing a slowdown in learning. The score reports are oftentimes color-coded to get teachers’ attention very quickly. A student who scores below expectation in reading comprehension, for instance, will be flagged in the system, typically with a bright red indicator, so the teacher notices immediately that an urgent intervention is needed to help the student. High-quality benchmark assessments, like STAR Reading and STAR Math, will provide instructional reports that include lesson plans and practice problems that help teachers tailor their lessons even more effectively.

Good schools, like Fairmont, include quality benchmark testing as part of the overall education process. Effective teachers use data from benchmark testing and other formative assessments to meet students’ learning needs right where they are. Benchmark testing in fall and winter takes the guesswork out of knowing whether students are grasping the essential skills and concepts that are necessary for success in more advanced classes, college, and even careers. We all want our students to have an advantage, and getting support from teachers at optimal times in the school year is one way good schools like Fairmont ensure that their students get the instruction and support they need to achieve success in learning…and life.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kelly Robinette has a wealth of experience in education — both in terms of breadth and depth. She has taught at the secondary level at public and private schools alike, and domestically as well as abroad. For the past 14 years, she has served in various capacities within Fairmont Schools’ Education Department, most recently as the Director of Data and Accountability.

Dr. Robinette holds a Master of Arts in Education, an Administrative Services Credential, and a Doctor of Education in Leadership degree. Her areas of expertise include academic outcomes data analysis, curriculum development, educational technology, professional development, and teaching strategies.

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