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In terms of best practices, perhaps the most effective strategy that has come from the call for the Response to Intervention pedagogical hierarchy within schools has been the focus on benchmarking as an ongoing practice that informs instruction. Good teachers benchmark student learning consistently and use the data to delineate next steps in instructional patterns for their students. Benchmarking is the use of some type of assessment, with fidelity, that measures the extent to which instruction is effective for the student. Benchmarking can assist in assuring that students are, in fact, learning what we are teaching them. In addition, benchmarking assures that the instructional approach being used with the student is effective. Benchmarking is synonymous with ongoing assessment, and can range from the simplicity of the questioning techniques that check for understanding built into a good lesson plan to the final benchmark of a state assessment.
Key to building an effective response to intervention program is the development of a variety of benchmarking tools that assist the teachers in developing lessons that are in fact meeting the needs of the students they are teaching. This is especially true of our students who learn differently, or have been classified as having a specific learning disability. Think about it—students having difficulty are usually already behind their same- aged peers in terms of learning acquisition—so assuring that their learning is on the right track, through the use of benchmarking strategies, cannot be understated. The requirements, under response-to-intervention regulations, assure that we utilize research-based instruction, and through this benchmarking, further require that we ascertain—over time—that the strategy we selected for the student is resulting in effective learning. Time spent in classrooms is valuable and not a dress rehearsal for our students. Time spent on ineffective strategies is time that our students can never get back. Benchmarking to assure that students are gaining and learning due to our instruction helps to document that growth is evident and measurable. Our students deserve nothing less.
Benchmarking must consider both formative and summative measures. Formative assessment means checking for understandings as we move to fully understand a concept or group of skills/strategies. It is ongoing, and can be in the form of questioning, simple probes, quizzes, and projects designed to have students demonstrate understandings—with fully developed rubrics to delineate expectations or measures that determine levels of understanding. Benchmarking should occur in a systematic way, over time, with daily-weekly-probes built in with interventions considered for those who do not meet the standard established for thorough understandings. Summative assessments are those end-of- the- quarter, mid-term or end of the year assessments that are at the end of a particular line of instruction—such as grade level state assessments, exams, and /or commencement-level assessments.
For the most part, in most content areas, teachers build in formative assessments to their instruction in the form of daily homework and classwork, weekly quizzes and unit tests. The idea of benchmarking takes this one step further, and requires that some intervention (or re-teaching in a different way) occurs for those who are not successful on these assignments. This builds in a step after the teacher records that failing grade into the grade book. It is no longer enough to say—I taught it, they didn’t study hard enough, and I’m moving on. It requires that we develop interventions that will assure that all students receive assistance in the form of remediation, intervention, and/or re-teaching to support progress towards meeting or exceeding learning goals.
What’s most exciting about developing a benchmarking system, which provides interventions at various levels, is that quick attention to remediating unclear understandings works well to assure that students will continue on the right track to developing the understandings necessary to move to successful acquisition of skills as delineated in the standards. This assures that misunderstandings do not become so great that failure is the only option.
In literacy areas of reading, writing, and numeracy—basic to all other content areas—the idea of effective ongoing benchmarking through the skill areas is even more important. Generally the skills necessary for success in these areas require acquisition of skills in a pattern that builds upon previous understandings. Effective programs build in ongoing assessment in classroom instruction, and also universal probes that measure the effects of instruction at least three times annually for all students, perhaps bi-monthly for those students currently in remediation (often referred to as Tier I or II in an RTI program) and even more often for Tier III or our students classified with learning differences. To effectively benchmark progress towards learning goals, a clearly aligned curriculum map and well developed lessons begin the process. At each step of the way, students are benchmarked (assessed) to determine success, and interventions are developed to quickly provide remediation for students needing a different approach to the learning. The whole process is predicated on the idea that all student can and will succeed, and the work of the professional is to determine another route to understanding for students who need more. This idea of lesson development, presumes that all students can learn—but may some may need more time or differentiated instruction to be successful.
Benchmarking can be through well-developed teacher made assessments, textbook probes, and should be followed up, periodically with a systematic-norm-referenced system that measures student progress as compared to other student who have received similar instruction (using national norms, perhaps to begin, and then moving to developing local norms). Eventually, all schools should develop local norms to assure that their students exceed their state standards (generally minimum standards). Through a solid process of benchmarking student learning, remediation becomes a matter of course, and students, when quickly remediated, generally rejoin their same-aged peers quickly, rather than spending much time in remedial or special education programs working to fix gaps that have become so great that failure becomes the norm. Basing instruction on summative performance as the mainstay of assessment, only creates system in which those who need us the most get too much too late. Ongoing assessment to inform instruction daily/weekly must become the practice and the rule of effective instruction. It is perhaps the best mandate to hit the rule books in a very long time.
Lois R. Favre, Ed. D. is the Superintendent of Schools at the Bridgehampton Union Free School District in Bridgehampton, New York. Before joining the Bridgehampton team, she has worked as an Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, a Pupil Personnel Services Director and a Special Education Teacher. She is well-published in the field of education and has presented both nationally and internationally on topics such as differentiation, students who learn differently, change process, learning styles, leadership and best practices.