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Education Benchmarking

August 27, 2014

Diane Ravitch wrote a post on Monday posing a set of questions raised in a Washington Post op ed essay on benchmarking by Boston College professor Andy Hargreaves. In the essay Hargreaves describes his perspective on the rationale behind benchmarking, which came to the public’s attention in the 1990s as part of the response to the fallout from A Nation at Risk. Hargreaves rightfully points out that benchmarking– especially international benchmarking— has been used by “reformers” as a means of “proving” that US schools are deficient and, therefore, should be overhauled. But, as I noted in a comment to both posts, benchmarking is nothing new in public education.

For decades individual student performance has been based on benchmarks. Teacher-made tests served as the de facto benchmark for determining whether a student passed or failed. The aggregated set of grades a student earned (i.e. their transcript) served as a benchmark for determining whether a student gained entry to particular colleges or not. Students were disciplined based on standards set forth in student handbooks and or standards set by a classroom teacher.

In most cases these standards were normative and not formative: a student was not compared to a set standard but rather compared to his or her cohorts. One of the reasons for setting benchmarks was to devise standardized tests like the SAT that provided a means for colleges to determine if a student with all A’s at East Podunk HS was as prepared as a student from an elite private school. Another reason to move away from this normative comparison of cohort groups was to avoid using it as a basis for homogeneous grouping that identified some students as “high perfuming” and others as “slow”. An important reason was to establish a means of implementing a mastery learning model whereby students progressed individually instead of as a cohort.

Before decrying benchmarking I think it is important to realize it’s been in place— and not necessarily to good effect.

An anecdote from my experience as a HS Principal in rural ME illustrates two approaches to the “benchmarking” teachers used to grade students.

In November of the first year I was Principal I reviewed the computer print-out listing the grades each teacher assigned to students and discovered that every student in one of the science teachers’ classes received an “A”. I asked my secretary (this was 1977— we didn’t have “administrative assistants” at that time) to schedule an appointment with this teacher after school. My intention was to make certain he understood that we wanted to have higher standards in the school and that “giving all A’s” was unacceptable. When I asked the teacher to explain why he had “given” all of his students an A, he replied that he hadn’t “given” them anything, they earned it. He believed it was imperative that all his students master the information presented in order for them to understand the information he would be presenting in the coming units and so he insisted that they re-take tests until they earned an “A”. That meeting in my office stayed with me for years to come…. and was on my mind later that year.

At the end of every school year, there is invariably a student who falls short of a passing grade… and invariably a case where a teacher can decide whether a 64.5 is an “F” or a “D”. One young woman had started the year off badly because of issues she was dealing with at home and done very poorly academically as a result. As the year progressed, a combination of her emerging maturity and the amelioration of her problems at home resulted in an upward trajectory in her grades. Several of her teachers were sympathetic to her problems and recognized that the improvement was genuine. Her social studies teacher, however, who was skeptical of my “higher standards” mantra, threw it back in my face when the student fell .75 short of his “high standard”.

Both teachers had benchmarks, but each was using them for different ends. As readers of this blog realize, I’ve come to realize that the science teacher’s benchmarks are the ones we SHOULD be using when we grade schools and students. Unfortunately, it’s the social studies standard that is in place thanks to NCLB, RTTT, and “education reform”.

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