A Principal’s Struggle before State Testing: The True March Madness 

I’m a lead learner (aka, principal). Each spring is tough for all educators, and for principals…let’s just say I don’t sleep much this time of year, without dreaming of data, having nightmares of test infractions or irregularities, getting fired as a result of low test scores, etc. I believe this is what dream analyzers would label as ANXIETY! 😜
When I’m anxious, I tend to rely on my faith and turn to prayer. I feel guilty for praying about my worries, especially when, in the grand scheme of life, many of them seem so trivial. I pray a lot about school—individual kids and staff, families, and our school family as a whole. I pray about testing season, as silly as it may sound. People who do not work in a school could never fathom the amount of stress within others during this time of year.
So much depends on these numbers.
*  This is students’ one shot to prove they have learned during the school year.
*  This is teachers’ one shot to prove they have taught during the school year.
*  This is principals’ one shot to prove they have been an effective leader this year.

One shot. 

One shot can determine the winner of a basketball game and whether a team moves on to the next part of the tournament bracket. One shot can determine the difference between being a champion and being the runner up. One shot can determine who is the winner and who is the loser. That is the madness behind March Madness…how a team performs in the seeding of the bracket on a particular day. There are buzzer beater shots, teams who get lucky, blowout upsets, and Cinderella stories.
Throughout the spring in every school in the nation, kids will be given their one shot on a standardized assessment. During the testing time, they will demonstrate their learning in math, reading, grammar, writing, and science. In this March madness preparation and heightened anticipation of student outcomes, there is one play in the playbook: increase overall scores from the previous year. Every state in the United States will be experiencing the worry, anxiety, and hope for each child to improve based on the Every School Succeeds Act.
Many schools around the country receive money for their high scores, placing pressure on schools lacking funding and resources to grasp at anything and everything in order for their students to have equity in their education experience. Schools who received reward money for growth the previous year are under the pressure to improve even more, and schools who didn’t receive reward money are anxious about showing enough growth to be acknowledged for their hard work.
All of this is based on that one shot we provide for each child. There are no retakes or second chances. They get a few hours of a school year to show what they know, how they have grown, and how successful they will be in the future. Our kids are at the three point line, knowing they have to score in order to truly win. Some kids are consistent shooters all the time, and some hit the rare shot. Some feel confident because they had a good night’s sleep, a full belly, and low stress. Some feel anxious because they know they are supposed to score, but cannot stop thinking about the possibility of disappointing the adults in their life. Some are lethargic and seemingly apathetic because they are exhausted from lack of nutrition, sleep, and safety.
My principal heart stays so conflicted about this kind of March Madness that lingers  through the summer months when scores are revealed. Does the best team always win? According to the millions of busted brackets after only the first day of the NCAA basketball tournament, the answer is “no”.
I pray for my kids to do their very best. I pray that each of them come to school ready to test (even though I know of several kids who don’t come to school to learn each day, but to feel safe and loved, and to be fed).
I pray that my students with special needs show how much they have overcome in a year’s time, knowing that their IEPs are addressing other basic skills they are lacking, and they are taking an assessment on some content they aren’t prepared to be assessed on. We give them extra time or have the test read to them to “level the playing field”, but kids with disabilities (all kids, really!) need much more than extra time and a reader to be successful on the state assessment.
I pray that our kids labeled as gifted will be able to demonstrate their knowledge at a higher than proficiency level, even though some of them aren’t showing up ready to take a big test either. Many of these kids have big issues going on in their lives, too, in spite of a label that seemingly gives them an advantage.
I pray for my teacher colleagues, who feel the tremendous pressure of having their kids score well, show growth, score comparable to the teachers on their team and in their district, and who are praying their kids are mentally and physically “okay” on testing days (they pray this every day, but on testing days the added stress is tough for the teacher’s heart).
I pray my school as a whole is ready…ready to take responsibility for former students and how they will score, ready to own the OUR Kids mindset, ready to support the teachers who are administering the assessments, and ready to collaborate as a team when the results come in.
I pray a lot about this one shot in our country that defines our schools…giving us a grade, withholding funding or awarding it, giving an indicator of how each child will perform on college and career ready assessments, ranking our schools from best to worst on many websites, and using it to determine teacher effectiveness.
I pray that each kid knows they are more than a number, grade, ranking, or proficiency level.
My principal heart prays constantly. I know that ultimately the one being judged by the one shot performance testing days, is ME. I’m the one who is supposed to have kids and teachers ready. I’m the one who supervises teaching and learning. I’m the one responsible for improvement or lack thereof. Thankfully, my school is an amazing family who understands my angst but knows March Madness is vital to being defined as a high achieving school, and that the circumstances of our children and school as a whole are never an excuse for poor performance (although for many kids their circumstances are an explanation for their performance on a particular day).
With my prayer comes action, for we do so much to make sure our kids are successful. Prayer is not hoping or wishing. Prayer is having faith that what we have done as a school team (staff, teachers, kids, families) will pay off, and each child’s score will prove everything we know about each individual student—that they have grown, improved, and learned so much (even though some may be labeled as not being proficient).
Principals have so much responsibility in making sure their schools perform according to their required accountability assessment. They know they will be judged for low performance overall. They know that sometimes they may have to sacrifice some core beliefs in order to ensure kids demonstrate growth in the format of their assessment.
I know there is a balance, but I struggle to feel it. March Madness makes me feel conflicted about decisions I make as a leader. It makes me question just about everything. I know in my heart that these assessment days are important, because accountability is necessary. This type of accountability feels like a game sometimes…we are pre-seeded based on many things, and compared to schools by our performance in the bracket. High performing schools have the tremendous pressure of maintaining and improving even more, and low performing schools have the tremendous pressure of showing growth by huge increases in scores. The lower seed plays the higher seed, because the higher seed is supposed to be the better team, according to statistics and bracketology.
My principal heart knows there is bias in the assessments, making it way more difficult for students with disabilities, English language learners, students living in poverty, (and so much more) to achieve and demonstrate proficiency. That is incredibly painful to think about—the lack of equity between kids, schools, districts…
Kids are capable of overcoming their circumstances! Educators who know their kids well, know that their students can break a generational cycle. I pray that one day our system of accountability will increase the level of support it takes for ALL kids to demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and readiness to contribute to their world. Success is very different for different people. A happy life for one may not be for another.
We do need accountability and test score data is useful, IF we can use it the right way to help us identify the bias in our schools, the rigor of our curriculum, and the alignment of our standards compared to other states. Using it to predict success for individual kids, to label kids and schools, and to withhold funding…that is the madness I struggle to understand.
This lead learner will keep praying for each child and teacher, not just during March Madness, but all year long. I pray for my supportive and safe school family who is accepting of all. I’m blessed to have that, and I know not every lead learner has it. I pray for growth in test scores, because I want the world to understand how amazing our school is, and for some, the numbers will be the only piece of data they will see.
My goal throughout March Madness:
Lead, learn, pray, and live those three to the fullest in my role—-that will certainly provide opportunity for growth, no matter the measuring tool.