Hating on Benchmarks

I’ve never liked benchmarks in school. I don’t hate them to the same extent as certain other things, but they frustrate me. They ignore the idea that a child is a complete person, much more complicated than a set of assessments and data.

When you take your infant in for regular well-baby appointments, the nurse always tells you where your little one fits in the percentiles for weight and height (and maybe even head size). Typically, your nurse and doctor are only concerned if your baby is jumping around in those percentiles significantly.  The fact is, for some babies to be in the 80th percentile, there must also be babies in the 20th. Somewhere are the babies who fit at both ends of the range. They have to be. Otherwise you’re not talking about percentiles. Doctors track this to be sure a child isn’t suddenly losing or gaining a lot of weight. Or to watch for other surprising shifts or differences. It’s one piece of information among many they collect.

In schools, benchmarks are often the only thing that matters. For example, every child in our school takes the Developmental Reading Assessment (a one-on-one fluency and comprehension assessment) in the spring (and the fall). At the end of first grade students are expected to be at a level 16. If the child started first grade reading at that level, you can just relax. If the child started the year not reading at all, you’ve got a mountain to climb, a serious one. But with a benchmark, those two children are looked at through the same lens. That child who never had the chance to read before (or who just wasn’t ready yet) and who makes it to a level 14, which is an astounding amount of growth, still missed the benchmark. They are below grade level. What a message to send. (And we do send it. It is marked on their quarterly progress report throughout the year and sent home in a specific letter about the DRA at the end of the year.)

I’m even more irritated by these benchmarks when we measure them so far before the year is over. Summer slide is well documented, especially for children living in poverty. So I accept that the start of each school year (at least since we lost our fabulous modified calendar several years ago) needs to be some catch up time, some repetition of the previous year. But here’s the thing, I only get 180 days with these kiddos. That’s not even half the days in a calendar year. Not a lot. So when I have to assess them with 30 days left in our year, we’re not really checking to see if they finished the year on benchmark. I read today with two of my five who did not make the benchmark. They are just shooting forward as readers right now. For a variety of reasons, these two kiddos (and a few others) are in the midst of a reading growth spurt. In a week or so, I think they could meet the benchmark. But the assessments had to be finished last week. So instead, at the age of seven, they’ll be told they’re behind. I don’t like to tell them that even if I think they are behind (I don’t think it’s a great way to encourage young children as learners). I especially don’t want to tell them that if I think they aren’t really behind!

I think benchmarks could be helpful if we used them more like doctors do, as a way to be sure children are growing as they should. It can be easy, when teaching a classroom full of children, not to feel as urgently about the lack of growth for some kids as one would hope. Checking benchmarks regularly helps makes sure kids don’t fall through the cracks. But let’s not go overboard. Let’s give kids time to learn and time to grow and support and encourage them as they do. Let’s remember that they are people, with a wide range of skills and needs and they are, every single one of them, unique.


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