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The Sacred Unmeasurable

by Kerry Zagarella

This past weekend in the famed March Madness College basketball tournament, RJ Godfrey, a player from Clemson University, played a pivotal role in their win and advancement in the tournament. RJ is an excellent player with one known weakness: baskets from the foul line. In fact, though RJ comes from an athletic family, played basketball all through high school, now in his second season at Clemson, received countless years of instruction, practice and training,  his stats at the line for scoring baskets is 55%. In the last 29 seconds of this elimination round tournament, Godfrey hit 4 out of 4 free throws improving his record to 100%! In likely the most stressful moment  of his basketball career,  Godfrey found something inside of himself that defied the data collected on him and hit those much needed baskets. Godfrey relied on the strength and knowledge of the “unmeasurable”. 

This month I completed several data driven assessments on each child in my Kindergarten class. Two of the tests are timed tests given on a computer, though mounds of research speak against the validity of these types of tests. In one timed test they had to read nonsense words to test their decoding skills. The words were simple cvc words (consonant, vowel, consonant) and are made up; words like, hig, lin, etc. The children are penalized if they read the NONSENSE word correctly, but use a long vowel sound instead of short. We are instructed to read the script that reminds the children the words are nonsense, yet, we do not tell them that they must know about silent e and read the words with short vowel sounds. Absurdity. I am happy if kids can decode  these words completely out of any contextual setting. 

When using assessments like this we interrupt a typical learning day. We assess children with a tool unknown to them and out of the context of their learning. We test them on what they know, and what they are supposed to know. This approach often leaves  many of our youngest students feeling sub par…perhaps feeling like their Kindergarten record is much like Godfreys from the line: 55%, inadequate and not reaching the benchmark. 

As educators we know that student potential lies in that unmeasurable part. Yet, every year, each trimester the children spend valuable class time being “assessed” with whatever the latest generic popular purchased program happens to be. The result of MCAS testing is not used by teachers to inform the instruction of individual students. It is used to analyze their test taking skills. The data is used by districts and politicians to once again highlight that financially sound districts often do better than those that struggle with poverty and other at risk factors. It is an easy measure to use against families living in poverty,  without having to deal with systemic economic inequities that perpetuate intergenerational poverty.

Educators comply with district and state mandates, then create and use their own formative assessments to help customize instruction to a student's strengths as well as weaknesses. These formative assessments happen daily, often hourly embedded in instructional  practices. Teachers develop their own system to track learning. We see trends, learning styles, preferred activities, connections, and interests of our students and plan accordingly. 

The potential of a student is not reflected in canned store bought data driven testing. Much like RJ Godfrey at the foul line drew upon his well of talent, skills and confidence to refute his former 55% from the line record, our students can achieve more if we tap into these unmeasurables. We cannot judge, label  and group kids according to the results of these tests. Students need time to think and process new information, but first and foremost they need to believe in their potential. A potential that has no number, but is infinite.

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