Mark’s Benchmarking Rants: How Misunderstandings Get Passed on As Truths!

Group of young students Discussing on Project

If I really can follow through on Blog Items—and generate readers and comments—HAH-well, a popular topic will be vocabulary and consistent understanding of key MTSS terms…like Benchmark/Benchmarking. I’d sure like to believe that I had some role is encouraging or supporting use of that term as Curriculum-Based Measurement (CBM) expanded in use from being used on some kids—as in part of development of local norms—to being used as a measure of growth and development—UNIVERSAL PROGRESS MONITORING FOR ALL KIDS as well as UNIVERSAL SCREENING. We were searching for a better term for the previous approach for testing all kids we (jokingly) referred to as “sheep dipping.” I think you might understand why we needed a better way to describe the approach! I’ll give you more information in another blog post…I hope. Anyway, this post was inspired by reading some questions directed to me for feedback about a district’s assessment plan.

Benchmarking Comments

These types of questions suggest to me (STRONGLY) that school districts take a step back and look at their District’s Assessment Plan that is INCLUSIVE of General and Special Education. One would like to hope there are common measures for many of the decisions. I won’t take up space with my ideas. Some of you are aware of mine anyhow. Assessment and decision making practices, including terminology, drift in how people do things over time. There are rumored changes in law and “lore” as legal authority Dr. Perry Zirkel describes it. Test publishers promote “new ideas” that district employees pick up at conferences and journals. Employees leave. Leadership changes. There’s always a new initiative. Continuity anyone, even in assessment? Two years in a row? Do we good at anything? Let me see if I can clarify some things.


First and foremost, Benchmarking (B) is UNIVERSAL PROGRESS MONITORING to ensure growth and development of what Maynard Reynolds called “Cultural Imperatives” of which basic skill reading is the highest priority! The late Phyllis C. Hunter coined the term “reading should be the next Civil Right.” Benchmarking began out of the early 1980 work of local norming of Curriculum-Based Measurement (CBM) of Reading-CBM, 1 -min measure of general reading skill/ability or “oral reading fluency.” R-CBM data were collected 3x per year, typically through Grades 1-6 or even Grade 8, although general reading skills typically asymptote (peak) about Grade 7. Again the PURPOSE was to provide data about reading growth and development just like doctors provide height and weight growth data to parents to ensure their kids are growing and help identify kids who were NOT growing.

Second, Benchmarking data could ALSO be used for UNIVERSAL SCREENING to identify students who might need more intensive intervention. Starting with my dissertation in 1981, there was clear evidence that R-CBM and other CBM data could be used to differentiate among students identified as SLD, those who received Title I and typical GE students and rather soon became part of common RTI and later MTSS assessment practices. In fact, this use of CBM (and other tests) as Universal Screeners soon overshadowed the use Benchmark tests for Universal Progress Monitoring, even though it clearly made/makes NO SENSE TO SCREEN MOST STUDENTS 3 TIMES PER YEAR FOR ACADEMIC PROBLEMS.

Third, Because many schools wanted more test information than that provided by short progress monitoring tests and screeners, test publishers began ADDING diagnostic tests to their Benchmark tests. These tests often add additional valuable information about how individual students and groups of students performed but they also added to the testing time required to collect the data. Furthermore, they added to the complexity of interpreting the data. 

Fourth, this whole system is based on an unquestioned premise. That (each) teacher can interpret the data and develop and deliver an individualized instructional plan! At the individual level, that is a premise that is not well supported in reading in the research literature. For classrooms, of students, I can’t imagine it working at all. Imagine trying to do this process for a small class of 20 second graders. Three times per year.  Or at the end of the year. Does THAT make any sense at all? Would you expect teachers to buy into a data system that doesn’t make sense? And if the data system, not matter how important parts of the data system are, doesn’t’ make sense, what about the system, MTSS, in which the data are used? When some things don’t make sense to teachers, in my experience, related things don’t make sense either.

Now, I do try to remedy some of these issues in my webinars and in consultation including what I call pop up consultation. Call me. But, we need to get our data system clear. Collect just enough data to make good decisions. Benchmarking is about growth and development. A school system MIGHT Benchmark through Grades K-6 or K-5, or less, based on the basic skill levels of their students. They may still screen beyond those years, but it I based on an assessment PLAN that makes sense.