Superintendent's Notebook: Embrace the madness that is March

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For sport fans, “March Madness” conjures up basketball teams vying for the coveted title of NCAA Champs. For many in education, it brings to mind the required annual standardized state testing.

Recent resistance to standardized testing has resulted in a large percentage of students opting out of tests in what some consider to be testing gone mad. So which is it? Is standardized testing the eccentric relative that you try to avoid, or the welcomed guest that comes for a brief visit once a year?

Like the kooky relative that we all have, standardized testing can provoke immediate anxiety in students, parents, and teachers: dreading the arrival and not being able to wait for the departure, so all can return to their normal routine. Teachers fear that the assessment results will be utilized to prove them ineffective, while the students and parents feel like failures when the results show what the child does not know.

On the other hand, as we look forward to a visit from a welcomed guest or relative, testing can be something to embrace rather than avoid. No one debates this in sports. Athletic stats are kept and recited with enthusiasm during televised games, citing points per game, rebounds, free throws and possessions. When reflecting on this data, if utilized well with strategic next steps, it can usher in more wins and fewer losses.

The same can be true in education. If schools look for trends in individual student, teacher, school, and district scores, the data can provide support in identifying goals for the following year that can lead to higher performance for all.

What can sometimes complicate this argument is when districts and parents do not receive the results in a timely manner. Parents are still awaiting their child’s results from last year’s testing. At some point, this then becomes a meaningless score for the individual. The Department of Education must find ways to improve this response time for it to be beneficial to parents, students, and educators.

The idea that teaching to a test is a negative thing implies that coaching based on data is also meaningless. As long as the material being assessed is what is deemed worthwhile, then this practice should be encouraged. If a basketball player’s stats on free throws is unimpressive, who doesn’t want some tips on how to improve the percentage of balls that go through the hoop? The same is true for students scoring low in reading. If we have strategies to help them better understand how to break down passages that will lead to stronger understanding and improved reading scores, why wouldn’t we do this?

Just like high performing athletes, students should be told that the anxiety they feel before a test can be helpful, and is definitely normal. The more we become accustomed to assessment, and less afraid of it, the more we learn from it. Our job is to realize that the benefits of accepting the testing outweigh the inconvenience of dealing with it, similar to welcoming eccentric family members.

Assessing is an opportunity to teach our students lessons in perseverance, grit, and when done well, sometimes leads to taking home the trophy. Let’s all embrace March Madness, knowing it can and should lead to stronger learning for all. And the next time the doorbell rings, welcome the “Archie Bunker” of your family with open arms.

Becky Foley is superintendent of schools in Regional School Unit 5 (Freeport-Durham-Pownal). She can be reached at foleyb@rsu5.org.

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