Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Hypocrisy of Grading Benchmark Tests

Our school Principal stirred the pot a bit when she announced a few weeks ago that the Benchmark Tests given to students in classes that were taking the state-issued high-stakes tests at the end of the year were to be counted toward student grades in classes.  Forcing student grades for Benchmark Tests is not a good practice.  This was in direct response to some students distributing flyers to other students asking them to boycott the Benchmark Tests.  The activist students knew that the Benchmark Tests were useless and a waste of time.  They knew that the statewide standardized assessments are invalid and unfair and the district's push to have Benchmark Tests for these assessments were equally invalid and a diversion of precious instructional time and resources.  

So, the Principal reacted by forcing teachers to count the Benchmark Tests for a class grade.  Benchmark Tests are not designed for this purpose, as a summative evaluation of student knowledge.  At best, they are formative indicators and predictors of student achievement on a future exam.  In Florida and in my district, we are not operating "at best" in regards to statewide standardized assessment.  

I will go on record stating that I adore our Principal.  She is caring for her students and she has a common sense of right and wrong.  Benchmark Testing is where we find our disagreement.  Let me share some gems from our faculty meeting this week:
  • "We need these scores to let us know where our students are."
  • "We heard some students weren't going to take them seriously."
  • "It doesn't matter what you feel about standardized testing, these tests give us a glimpse of what your student's know."
  • "You should use benchmarks to adjust your instruction."
  • "The best way to motivate students is to give them a grade for it."
  • "I know the test is invalid"
  • "Use your professional judgement when entering the grade for this assignment"
  • "If you are counting it as a test score, please use a curve".
I will do my best to restrain myself, but here are some thoughts I have on these comments:

This thought process is insulting to students, insulting to the entire process of learning, and one of the fundamental flaws of the current practice of learning in education.  If the only way to motivate students to care is to give them a grade, there is MUCH more wrong with everything than I originally thought.  It's quite disrespectful to think of students in this manner, that the only way to motivate them is to grade them. We should be teaching students for the sake of learning and knowledge and mastery, not for grades.  And when we incentivize something with a simple grade, we have taken ALL value of that thing away.  In Dan Pink's Drive, motivation is boiled down to 3 simplistic factors (and I tend to agree, having seen it in practice): Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. A major component to building motivation is to establish Purpose in what people are doing.  If people do not see or understand or agree with the purpose of a thing, they will not be motivated for that thing, no matter what other incentive is there.  So the belief is that we can offer an activity to students, one they feel or perceive is completely useless, fail to convey the purpose (because in the case of Benchmark Testing there is CLEARLY no purpose), and then threaten them with a grade for them to "take it seriously."  We have degraded students to trick ponies to do as we say for a treat.  We can convince them to do their best because...grades.  We can dangle this golden prize over their head if they just give it the ol' college try.  And this works?  Maybe for some, the nerds like me.  But not for all, not even for most.  To think that's what will do the trick is incorrect, arrogant, power-hungry, and condescending.  And that's our view of students?  Here puppy, take this useless and meaningless and time-wasting test.  Do your best because it's for a grade.  Good doggie.  

This thought process is insulting to us as teachers.  The belief is that we need these Benchmark Test results to show us where our students struggle and to allow us to inform our instruction based off those strengths.  The reality is that if we need the results of these Benchmark Tests to know what our students know, then we are in the wrong field.  Our day to day interactions and assessments paint a much better picture of what the students know than a Benchmark Test created by the district in a vague attempt at a "best guess" of what the state standardized assessment will look like (crap shoot), regardless of what has happened so far in the classroom (including time out for pep rallies, plays, fire drills, testing for other tests, and the prep tests for the testing of those other tests).  These Benchmark Test scores will supposedly tell us how well the students are likely to perform on the particular statewide test for which they are Benchmark Testing.  News Flash: they're going to bomb it!  We don't need benchmarks when Florida already paid Utah to get a good glimpse of how abysmal student scores on these tests will be!

What other pieces of evidence do we need that the test itself is flawed, the design of the test is flawed, the design of the questions is flawed, the grading philosophy of Item Response Theory is flawed, and the entire endeavor is wrong and unfair?  So, OF COURSE, the benchmark scores will be low.  We KNOW that, we KNEW that before the Benchmark Tests were given, and we will ALWAYS know that for every Benchmark Test in this system.  What's funnier/sadder is that we don't even know how the scale will slide for the actual statewide test.  Just this week, our state announced that it is looking to set the passing score on the statewide assessments.  How does this affect Benchmark Testing?  A student could BOMB these benchmarks, have the same exact performance on the test, and still PASS the test because the sliding scale hasn't yet been established.  And how could this happen?  Because the test is flawed.  But our schools HAVE to do something about these low Benchmark scores!  Our principals HAVE to address their faculties to "fix" the problem.  Our "data driven" obsession must be fed so we can continue putting fear into the hearts of our teachers until they whip their students into proper shape before this statewide assessment.  Let the beatings continue until morale improves.

Now, let's imagine for a second that the statewide standardized assessment was NOT flawed.  Let's imagine that it was a fair and valid test.  There would be NO NEED FOR BENCHMARKS because the in-class assessments from the teachers would be the benchmarks and predictors of student performance (whatever that would indicate).  The teachers would know well in advance the nature of the assessment, the weight assigned to the different types of questions (instead of the very unfair Item Response Theory), and the actual scope of the testing items in respect to the standards to be taught.  The teachers would be able to design in-class formative or even summative assessments throughout the year to either prepare students for what was coming or to accurately measure student growth and learning based on those standards, thus making the class grade a more reliable and valid statistic (hooray data!).  Even in an ideal situation, these district-made Benchmark Tests would be useless.

Back to reality, though.  We should understand and invest in the fact that the teacher knows every day where the students are.   At the high school level, the teachers have to do their best to adjust instruction for a 45 minute class period with 25 students in that period.  And guess what?  That's 25 different levels of understanding!  In one class period!  Now, wait a mean, not every one of my 150 students is at the same exact strength of each different topic that I am currently covering or have previously covered in my class?  Stop the presses!  And wait, what?  I need a district-made Benchmark Test (which remember, is a crap shoot) to tell me that?  If this is the belief that is out there, and the reality under which we are operating, and what we have chosen to accept, we as teachers may have picked the wrong profession. If we, as teachers, can't determine what a student knows unless we give them a Benchmark Test, we should be looking for another career.  How insulting to teachers is it to tell us we need these Benchmark Tests to know where are students are! If a teacher needs a Benchmark Test for that purpose, I say we FIRE that teacher. End of story.

And we close the meeting with double-speak. When opening with our need for Benchmark Testing (because we have no other way to assess our students), our Principal (and remember, I honestly love and appreciate her) insults us by bestowing a newly found "professional judgement" when it comes to GRADING our students on these Benchmark Tests.  If you think or believe we have professional judgement, then please do not tell us to enter these invalid things for a grade.  And by the way, she clearly stated her accurate belief that this testing system is, indeed, invalid.  And this is the only explanation behind her suggestion that if teachers are scoring the Benchmark Test as a class test they put a curve on it. I'm having difficulty fathoming the hypocrisy of her entire message.  I know she is better than this.  This just indicates the pressure that administrators are under as well.  But I will not allow that pressure to hit me.  I hate that it has hit my colleagues.  I wish our administrators will simply level with us, tell us the truth, let us hear their mutual frustration.  I wish our administrators would do something absolutely unheard of, and ASK US what we can do.  How can we work together to fight this injustice?  What can we do together to alleviate the pressure of bad policy?  Unfortunately, our leadership model is top-down, do-as-I-say, and power hungry.  This model is taught, it is preached, it is rewarded.  I dream of a day when we have good leadership.

So, what do we do?  Well, I have to ask myself "if I had Benchmark Tests for my classes (which I don't), what would I do?"  If I had a district Benchmark Test for my class, I would refuse every single instruction given to me to grade the assignment.  I would not enter the assignment in the online grade book. If I was confronted, I would suggest the administrators enter it into my grade book as an assignment (because they have the access to do so).  Once entered as an assignment, I would not assign a grade for the assignment.  If I were confronted, I would suggest the administrators assign the grade.  I would suggest the administrators grade the assignment itself.  And in the end, if all that were done, I would simply exclude that grade from the student's class grade.  Because I have the ability to do so.  I wish there more I could do to stand up to this.  But this is as far as I can think to do.

I am thinking to empower my colleagues to find their voice.  We are Greater When Heard.


  1. I wish all teachers had the same opinion as you do about this topic. I stumbled upon this article by mistake and I'm glad I did. As a student myself (with two benchmarks tomorrow) I realize that the tests are useless but again, as a student, there is nothing I can do about it. I will pass this article on to anyone I can. Thank you!

  2. you are completely right. My son has always been an a student .. Well, one of the benchmark tests came up and he made a 71 and now is grade is an 88 and he is freaking out thinking that he isn't good enough for college .. I absolutely do not believe in these tests at all and the fact that they use them in our childrens grade is horrific !

  3. Couldn't have improved myself. Wonderful!

  4. I hate benchmarks. When I got 20 wrong on my benchmark (not because im bad, but because i wasnt finished with the last 15 and I was forced to submit.) which was 20 minutes ago, I wanted to KMS. I'm already struggling with feeling like I am worth anything, and me feeling like I'm stupid isn't ever going to help anything. I know I'm not stupid, as I am in the gifted program, but I still feel dumb. Benchmark puts stress on me and makes me feel like I'm just a dumb piece of crap.

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