Skills Testing is Indicative of a Bigger Problem

The annual cycle of Foundational Skills Assessments in BC Schools has just wrapped up, with all the usual yelling and screaming on open line radio that punctuates just about everything in this province. So let’s cut through the arguments right now:

The BC Teachers’ Federation is right: Not only don’t the FSAs test your child’s skills (but instead test some “generic” Grade 4 or 7 via-à-vis the curriculum expectations of the Ministry of Education) but they don’t need to be universally administered — as with international comparisons, a random sample would be just fine and do the same job.

The BC Government is misleading parents: A school which has poor FSA results, or whose FSA results fall, is supposed to be helped to come up to provincial norms. No resources, no monies, nothing but hot air comes from Victoria to any school. So the point of the FSAs — to improve the weak schools — that parents and voters expect, doesn’t happen.

The BC Government is inconsistent: It’s all right with everyone up to the Premier that the Fraser Institute should use the FSA results to stack-rank BC schools based on FSA results. That, evidently, is considered a help to parents. Never mind that the FSA results also correlate well to issues of rural resource bases vs urban ones, to socio-economic classes in school cachement areas, and the like: pass the word, “there is greener grass out there”. Meanwhile, stack-ranking the province’s hospitals based on the standardised metrics and reporting used in the Health Care “system” by the same Fraser Institute is socially unacceptable to this government: the names of the facilities can’t be used, because then people would expect change, and issues like the urban:rural resource divide, Health Authority funding vs the growth rate in their cachement areas, etc. mean that some facilities are never going to be able to compete for top ranking.

Schools systematically misinform parents: Yesterday on CKNW the President of the BCTF pointed out that any parent has the right, under the regulations surrounding FSAs, to put a request in writing to their child’s school and the school must excuse that child from the FSAs. No reason other than “I don’t want my child writing this” needs to be given. Instead of letting parents know what their options are, school administrations stress the mandatory nature of these tests, tell parents there are no options, and bully all but the tenacious few into submission. (After all, a larger base of students writing the test eliminates most of the probability of the school moving quickly up or down the league table based on the sample size: this is particularly important where special needs students, as a percentage of the total group writing, moves above a few percentage points.)

Classrooms are taken over by the FSAs: Parents want their child to do well; so do teachers (given all the misperceptions surrounding the FSAs). The net effect is that teachers dare not avoid using classroom time to prepare for the FSAs, and it is now common (it certainly was at my son’s school last year, where he was engaged in the Grade 7 FSAs) to have two weeks of class time turned over to “FSA Preparation”. Other parents tell similar tales. (The disconnect between the FSAs and reality is even stronger when you realize that my son was, as were many of his classmates, doing Grade 8 [or higher] work in one or more of the FSA-tested subjects — FSA testing ends up being tied at that school to age more than nominal grade, typical of multi-age, multi-grade classrooms. Of course, from the school’s point of view, all this was likely to manipulate its league-table standing higher.)

So, if the FSAs become nothing more or less than a way to lead to a report by a private sector think tank that intermixes private and public schools (making private look better) and allows denigration of teachers (look at the results!) with no recourse, why are we doing them?

If we really wanted to know whether the students were mastering the material, shouldn’t we have a curriculum-ending examination that is tied to what should have been mastered? If foundational skills are so important — and, actually, they are — shouldn’t we want to know at the end of each year that “little Johnny” can read, write and numerate to grade level, so that we can take action to bring him or her up to what he or she would need to succeed in the next grade level? Wouldn’t that actually require a high standard — say, a 70%+ pass level — and an individual education plan for each student? Wouldn’t that also suggest that we’d lose the idea of “grades” as “class cohorts” and instead think of them, subject by subject, as a way to indicate when the examination would take place?

Well, that would never do! Little Johnny couldn’t be socially promoted from one year to the next “to avoid bruising his fragile ego by separating him (or her) from his age group”. Never mind that we kill initiative in learning by holding each and every Little Johnny back in boredom in the subjects they have awakened an interest in. Never mind that we shovel him or her forward, unprepared, into the next classroom — and then terrorise him or her when the FSAs come around. Little Johnny, after all, knows that he (or she) doesn’t know. Children are not stupid about these matters. All of a sudden a moment of reckoning comes.

Our educational system is designed to socially engineer children to fit into neat cubicles in life, and to lose the desire to question “why” things work (or don’t work) the way they do.

Yet parents yell and scream — in blog comments, on talk radio, in letters to the editor, and at PAC meetings in schools — that testing regimes are essential to knowing how their child is doing, and how their child’s school is doing. From the point of view of the educational bureaucracy, and the politicians it “serves”, this is all to the good. FSAs give the illusion of accountability and assessment — and distract parents’ minds from considering much of the “social values” content crammed into the curriculum that displaces real work in history, geography, the sciences, mathematics, literature, grammar, etc. A graduate of the BC school system often can’t spell in a consistent manner, can’t form a sentence that properly uses subordinate clauses, can’t read at much more than a Grade 7 level (yet they’re “university ready”), can’t do mathematics from first principles but instead only disgorges memorizes proofs, etc. — but they know their First Nations, they’ve had seven or eight years of drug and sex education, they’ve got their volunteer hours and they’ve had “green philosophy” jammed down their throats. Good to know we’re turning out people with the background they’ll need to achieve on the world stage, eh?

That’s what the quest for accountability through the FSAs has allowed to happen.

Randomly check, if you must, to assess foundational skills. That puts the Fraser Institute out of the school ranking game — the Minister of Health is right: there are other conditions that affect the results that we can’t overcome. Besides, half the institutions will be below the mid-point — that’s the nature of “averages” — and so the real reason for these tests being universal comes out.

They’re a club to use against the teachers. Parents, why do you allow this?

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