What Is Benchmark Assessment?

7 Min Read
Teacher and student in classroom talking

It’s easy to get wrapped up in your routine for the school year, and before you know it, it’s over! But it’s important to make time to track how things are going. Teachers are often busy planning day-to-day lessons and units, monitoring in-the-moment learning, and managing their classrooms. But remember to look around, find your bearings, and consider whether students are making progress in the long term. Benchmark assessments are a key tool to bridge the information gap between what’s going on in the short term within the classroom and end-of-year expectations.

Benchmark Assessment Definition

Benchmark assessments are tactics used to evaluate student progress and performance. These assessments can be standardized or informal measures and serve as a point of reference, providing data that can inform instructional decisions and track student learning over time. Benchmarks typically represent proficiency or mastery targets that students are expected to meet at specific points during their educational journey. Analyzing benchmark assessment data allows educators to identify areas of strength, adjust teaching strategies, and ensure students are on track to meet learning objectives. This data-driven decision-making is crucial for providing targeted support and interventions to help all students succeed.

The Benefits and Purpose of Benchmark Assessments

Benchmark assessments serve a critical purpose in education by providing objective data on student performance and progress. Some purposes of benchmark assessments include:

  • Monitoring student progress over time to identify opportunities for intervention or enrichment
  • Pinpointing the risk of learning difficulties to enable early support
  • Supporting data-driven decision-making at the classroom, school, and district levels
  • Providing common assessments that enable apples-to-apples comparisons across classrooms and buildings
  • Focusing on student progress and growth rather than just achievement levels
  • Informing big-picture instructional planning and resource allocation

The benefits of benchmark assessments are numerous. They offer objective evidence of student performance; identify effective instructional practices (or inversely, practices that may need to evolve); and determine whether learning generalizes to broader educational outcomes in reading, math, science, and beyond. Benchmark data empower educators and administrators to make informed, evidence-based decisions that support student success at the individual and system-wide levels.

Types of Benchmark Assessments

Because benchmark assessments serve various purposes in educational settings, both their designs and inferences about student performance are also varied, which can lead to some confusion as to just what a benchmark assessment tries to accomplish. Though not a conclusive or mutually exclusive breakdown, there are three general types of benchmark assessments that I’ll cover throughout this blog:

  • Targeted skill-based measures
  • Curriculum-informed measures
  • Independent growth measures

The first type of benchmark assessment, targeted skill-based measures, focuses on measuring specific skills or processes that are essential for student learning. One example that most teachers are familiar with is oral reading fluency. These measures are designed to determine a student’s rate and accuracy of text read aloud. Reading fluency is a necessary component of skilled reading that also strongly predicts overall reading success. These assessments establish grade level and seasonal (fall, winter, and spring) targets that help teachers identify current student abilities, monitor progress, and provide appropriate interventions to promote skill development.

Another type of benchmark assessment, curriculum-informed measures, evaluates student mastery of content covered up to a certain point in the curriculum. These assessments provide a snapshot of student understanding, allowing teachers to identify areas that may need additional reinforcement. If we think in terms of unit tests or midterms, this type of benchmark assessment is used to answer the question, “To what extent have students learned the curriculum as it was taught?”

A third type of benchmark assessment, independent growth measures, measures ongoing student growth and development. This type of broad assessment provides norm-referenced interpretations of student achievement and growth for comparing student performance to that of their peers. 

The results from these kinds of benchmark assessments can serve as reliable predictors of future performance on high-stakes summative exams. 

Formative, Interim, and Benchmark Assessments

Just as different assessment types get called benchmark assessments, they may also be synonymous with two common assessment terms: formative and interim assessments. The details and confusion rarely come down to the test itself but rather the meaning of the three words: formative, interim, and benchmark.

Merriam-Webster’s definition of benchmark includes:

  1. Something that serves as a standard by which others may be measured or judged
  2. A point of reference from which measurements may be made
  3. A standardized problem or test that serves as a basis for evaluation or comparison 

With this broad definition, it’s hard to deny anything from a chapter test to an end-of-year summative test this label. If we focus more narrowly on the word “benchmark,” meaning a standard for comparison or against which performance is judged, then one suggestion is to categorize curriculum-informed and targeted skill-based measures as true benchmark tests or assessments.

Interim assessment is a term coined in 2009 (Perie, Marion, & Gong) that describes more of the norm-referenced measures that are given at standard intervals (e.g., fall, winter, and spring) separate from the instructional scope and sequence of the curriculum that focuses on achievement and growth across broader domains, such as reading or math. Interim assessments are given on a larger scale than formative assessments, have less flexibility, and are aggregated to the school or district level to help inform policy. These assessments are driven by their purpose, which fall into the categories of instructional, evaluative, or predictive. Some districts also refer to interim assessments as periodic assessments that are clear and consistent. In the case of oral reading fluency, it has elements of both benchmark and interim assessment, which explains why the terms are likely used interchangeably. 

Formative assessment is the hardest term to define. The term formative assessment was likely co-opted from the formative assessment practices defined by Black and Wiliam (1998), which described the day-to-day and even minute-to-minute evaluations a teacher makes during instruction. Teachers leverage these micro assessments to adapt their lessons on the fly. For an assessment to be labeled formative, it should meet two primary criteria: 1.) the results are immediately actionable, and 2.) the information is granular enough that it CAN be actionable. Given the mix of assessment types and designs mentioned above, not all benchmark measures provide the kind of granularity that meets this tighter definition of the word formative.

Benchmark Assessment Examples

There are many types of benchmark assessments and considerable variability in where they come from. Many people associate benchmark assessments with commercially available standardized measures, like MAP Growth or MAP Reading Fluency. Benchmark assessments are also being incorporated into state summative testing through innovative through-year and through-course designs, where performance across benchmark tests in fall, winter, and spring all contribute to a student’s overall proficiency evaluation. These large-scale benchmark assessments offer several advantages, such as psychometric evidence of validity and reliability; standardization to improve objective results; and large banks of calibrated, field-tested questions to support inferences about student performance. Curriculum providers also can include benchmark assessments with diagnostic, screening, and progress monitoring components or longer-range beginning-, middle-, and end-of-year assessments, like those found in HMH’s Into Math and Into Reading.

Benchmark assessments can also be created locally at the teacher, district, and state levels. Examples include the following:

  • Records for reading that allow teachers to listen to their students and identify areas for improvement 
  • Holistic writing rubrics with common prompts and portfolios that allow students to demonstrate ability across various aspects of writing and see their progress over time 
  • Science notebooks and inquiry-based investigations that ask students to demonstrate their understanding of scientific phenomena
  • Performance tasks in math that ask students to tackle authentic, complex problems that require the application of math concepts learned throughout instruction

These locally created options can be tailored to specific goals or outcomes but require considerable resources for their development and maintenance to ensure consistency in scoring criteria for all teachers.

Using Benchmark Assessment Data to Inform Instruction

Depending on test designs and how the data are reported (e.g., by standard, cluster, or overall growth), benchmark assessments can support data-driven decisions at multiple levels, from individual student and class to grade, building, and district.

At the classroom level, individual student and class results can help identify levels of achievement and monitor progress over time. This data can be used to differentiate instruction, form flexible groupings, determine if scaffolding or enrichment is needed, and gauge whether or not a student or class is on track to meeting goals. Because of the periodic nature of benchmark assessments, they don’t tend to inform instruction at the granular lesson level but rather at the longer-term unit planning level.

At the building level, administrators and grade-level teams can look across classrooms to determine trends in student performance and the effectiveness of instruction. Benchmark assessments are often used as common assessments for universal screening purposes in RTI and MTSS cases and can serve as one data point to identify intervention or enrichment opportunities. Many school improvement plans often use the achievement and growth metrics from benchmark assessments as components of their goals. Benchmark assessment data are also helpful for identifying teacher professional development opportunities. 

At the district level, benchmark assessment data are valuable for understanding a district’s performance as a whole. Additionally, the data can be used to explore student performance across different curricula or programs and disaggregated by student groups of interest. As a result, districts can identify where programs are working well and allocate resources to those that might need additional support. Interim assessments, because they are not tied to a particular curriculum or scope and sequence, also serve as powerful outcome measures during curriculum and program evaluations.

According to a 2023 RAND study, 99% of all kindergarten through grade 12 public schools reported using benchmark assessments, with elementary and middle schools incorporating commercially available assessments more often than locally created ones. Because of the frequent use of these tools, educators must understand how the assessment data can be used to improve student outcomes. With benchmark assessment, it’s helpful to establish a purpose and determine the frequency to administer it that allows you to get the most useful information about your students. Ultimately, you can learn much more about your class to help them achieve academic success.


For more on data-driven assessments and instruction, explore HMH assessments that provide educators a complete picture of student achievement.

Get a free guide to choosing the right assessments for your district.

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