As parents, we are all very interested in how well our children are learning the key skills and essential knowledge that are fundamental to lifelong learning. Scientists tell us that this love of learning is associated with longevity, greater life satisfaction, optimism, and engagement. What more could we want for our children?

Responsible schools, like Fairmont, embrace lifelong learning as a central value. But along with this comes the knowledge that in order for students to also adopt this value, they need to feel confident in their ability to read, write, and problem solve. At Fairmont, we take instruction in these key areas very seriously, and so our teachers spend a significant amount of time teaching these skills, offering students opportunities to practice, and then measuring progress with benchmark assessments to determine their levels of understanding on their road to mastery.

At this point in the year, we have finished our fall benchmark assessments and are now moving into our winter testing season for students in grades 3 – 8. Our main goal as educators now is to look for expected levels of growth in reading and math, and make any adjustments to our instruction to meet the learning needs of students. Following the Winter Milestones testing, which will take place in mid-February, we’ll be providing parents with interim reports that show mid-year progress in reading and math. These reports can be a bit confusing, so it’s important that we clarify exactly what is being measured on these assessments, and what the score reports are indicating. Below is a brief description of the various types of scores you’ll find on benchmark reports. We’ll also include information on what exactly is being assessed and how.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Benchmark assessments are more formative and diagnostic in nature so are NOT designed to measure mastery. Students have the entire year to work with their teachers to achieve mastery in expected learning outcomes. In addition, it is important to remember that each benchmark assessment is just one measurement at a particular point in time that can be affected by a number of factors.

Q: What skills and concepts are being measured on a benchmark test?
A: Benchmark assessments are relatively short and designed to measure foundational skills in key learning areas, such as reading and math. For the reading subtest on benchmark tests like Milestones or STAR, these foundational skills can include the following content strands:

  • Comprehension
  • Word Recognition or Vocabulary
  • Analysis of different types of texts (e.g., literary, argument)
  • Inference

For math, the content strands, no matter the age of the student, will generally include questions measuring grade appropriate understandings of:

  • Numbers and Operations
  • Geometry and Measurement
  • Data Analysis, Statistics, and Probability
  • Patterns, Functions, and Pre-Algebra

Q: What types of questions are being asked?
A: Most benchmark assessments are made up of multiple choice questions that are presented on a digital device. This is so that scoring is immediately available once the student completes the test, and teachers can get results in real time. This is obviously beneficial since the problem areas can be addressed at just the right time.

Reading questions generally include a short reading passage, followed by questions that may ask students to:

  • Find the main idea of the passage
  • Identify evidence in the text to support a claim
  • Draw a conclusion about the purpose of the passage

Math problems may ask students to solve a problem by filling in the blank of a missing number, identifying an algebraic equation that best represents a statement, or solving a multiple step word problem that requires an understanding of geometry or number relationships.

Additionally, some questions in all domains are more challenging than others, and so are given heavier weight when scoring. Depth of Knowledge (DOK) questions are included on many benchmark tests to measure much more than simple recall. The goal of testing is not only to see what students know, but also how they apply their knowledge to new situations and if they are able to make effective use of it. For high DOK levels, such as DOK 4, assessments that are more performance based, such as writing proficiency tests and creative assignments, are most appropriate.

Measuring What Matters: Making Sense Of Parent Reports

Q: What do the different scores on reports mean?
A: Some benchmark score reports include scaled scores, percentile ranks, stanines, and probable ranges. Each of these needs some explaining, but a good parent report will clarify where your student falls in terms of performance, generally with a graph or chart.

  • Scale Scores – Scale scores are based on the number of questions students answered correctly as well as the difficulty level. So two different students could actually get the same number of questions correct but end up with different scores if one answered the more difficult questions successfully. Scale score ranges that indicate performance expectations can also be included on reports, which clarifies the meaning of the score itself. The image below, taken from the STAR Family report, shows where the fictitious student, Bella, scored in terms of 3rd grade level expectations in reading. She’s at Level 2, which means she is slightly below expectations but moving closer to meeting the standard (Standard Nearly Met).
  • Percentile Ranks – Percentile ranks are a very common score found on standardized tests. These are based on various norm groups – national norms, suburban norms, independent norms, district norms, etc. The most recognizable percentile ranking score you’ll see on standardized test reports will be national percentile rank (NPR), which reflects national norms. What this means is that your student is being compared with students across the nation, in both public and private schools, who are in the same grade and who took the same test. If your child scores in the 78th percentile NPR, then he or she scored better than 78% of students across the nation who took the test but not as well as the remaining 22% in the norm group.
  • Probable Range – The questions that are asked on tests to measure understanding are only a sample of all the many types of questions that could be asked. This means a student might perform a little differently if some questions were omitted or others were included. These tests are vetted to ensure validity and reliability, yet there remains a range of probable scores which indicate a “confidence level.” The image below is taken from the fall Milestones assessment and shows the probable range a student might score in for math. As you can see, the range can be extensive, which is why we always take results from any test with a grain of salt.

Q: Where can parents get more information?
A: Your child’s teacher is the best person to ask questions on how your child is growing and learning in particular subject areas. Again, as mentioned earlier, these interim reports are only indicating where a student has scored at a particular moment in time. They are designed to help teachers better understand the learning needs of their students in regards to particular learning objectives.

FINAL NOTE ON BENCHMARK TESTS: Remember, the goal with Benchmark assessments is growth, not achievement. They are only one measure of student learning at particular points in time. In terms of the human equation, there is no substitute for caring parents and teachers in the student learning process. Children need to know that their ability is not determined by scores on a test – these are just tools that help teachers better understand where their students need more support and instruction.

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.