Friday, January 15, 2010

Why parents should support FSA tests

The great FSA test battle is on again as the B.C. Teachers' Federation continues its campaign to kill the school tests.

That would be a great loss.

Coincidentally, a study has confirmed the usefulness of the Foundation Skills Assessment tests, which measure the performance of Grade 4 and 7 students in math, reading and writing.

The tests are a limited tool. But they let parents see how their children are doing compared with other students across the province. Teachers can see how their classes are performing in these basic skills areas compared with others. Perhaps there is something to learn from a counterpart in a similar school across town.

Administrators, school districts and the Education Ministry can look at the results and judge how they are doing. Again, they can assess where lessons can be learned or more effort is needed.

And researchers have a unique source of data that lets them look at ways of improving student performance.

A just-released study from the University of B.C.'s Human Early Learning Partnership offers a timely example. The study used FSA data to look at the link between where children lived and how they did in school.

Partly, the answer is obvious. Children from affluent neighbourhoods do better across the board than children from poor communities. That's expected. They have a range of advantages, from attending preschool programs to the benefits of having parents not struggling to scrape by to better nutrition.

But the study, which tracked 2,648 students from kindergarten to Grade 7, also found just how crucial the formative years are. Even if students moved to a more affluent neighbourhood after starting school, their performance in basic skills continue to lag.

That's important to know. It means that if improving educational performance for all children is the goal, then a large part of the focus has to be on support for families with young children before they enter the school system.

And according to the researchers, the study would not have been possible without the universal FSA tests.

Critics - mostly teachers and their union, but also some administrators - have a largely unconvincing list of complaints. It's true that the tests measure only part of schools' performance and don't reflect successes in developing good citizens or critical thinkers. But that's not an argument against assessing performance in a critical area.

Some teachers have complained about the stress on students and time spent preparing for and administering the tests. But two sets of tests in nine years of elementary school isn't a huge burden. And teachers should not be spending time specially preparing students; the tests measure long-term progress.

The teachers' union is particularly rankled by the Fraser Institute's annual report ranking school performance on the tests. The results fall to consider socio-economic factors and favour private schools, they say.

That's to some extent true. But parents and other readers aren't stupid. They can consider those factors. And there is nothing preventing the BCTF or the Education Ministry from preparing its own reports.

A more compelling argument concerns the response to the reports. Some parents transfer their children from poorly performing schools, which further weakens them.

But the notion that parents should be denied information about how well their child and the school is doing because they might make use it is unacceptable.

The strongest argument against FSA tests might be that there is little point in spending the time and money if they don't result in any action.

A 2008 study by a Simon Fraser University professor used the FSA scores to identify districts where much greater progress had been made in closing the achievement gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal students. The study then looked at what strategies were working. Unless the lessons are applied - and funded - the value is lost.

But the tests remain an extremely useful tool to learn what is working and what isn't and improve educational opportunity for all students.

Footnote: The teachers' union is urging parents to refuse to let their children write the tests. That's a destructive form of sabotage which leaves the test program in place, but reduces its effectiveness for researchers.


Paul Ramsey said...

Unfortunately, the Fraser Institute mentality (that the FSA can tell you if a school is "good" or not) is contributing to a form of self-fulfilling prophecy, as parents shuffle their kids around to get into the "good" schools in their area. The data provided by FSA is a powerful public policy tool, too powerful to give up. It's unfortunate that the data gathering process is creating this side effect. (The Fraser Institute study tells me my neighbourhood school is "bad", my experience of it, the enthusiasm of the teachers and administration, tells me the opposite.)

Brenton said...

As the partner of a school teacher, I can assure you that taking the time to teach to the tests is very taxing and strongly interferes with regular teaching. And while it may be ideal that teachers simply teach and we measure student progress over time, it is inevitable that schools focus on the tests to bump their scores so they return better results in comparison with other schools.

Bernard von Schulmann said...

If not FSA, how does the public measure if a school is doing well or not?

Does the public not have a right to know about schools that are not doing well? Every school says they are great, but that is simply not the case.

I can see a case for private schools keeping their information out of the public eye, but public schools have a responsibility to demonstrate to the public they are doing a good job.

If the BCTF does not like the FSA, what do they propose as a good measure of how well schools are going?

Anonymous said...

"Critics - mostly teachers and their union, but also some administrators"

It is interesting to me that most critics are those professionals holding Bachelors, Masters, and PhD degrees - with direct application to the Profession of Education. Your column appears to give just about any other opinion more credit and weight than those coming "straight from the horse's mouth". I tend to support the notion that those on the front lines are the most reliable "expert witnesses" and that their testimony should be given the most weight, all other things being equal. If they are telling us that in spite of all of the positive spin you would care to apply to these tests is being outweighed by its negative aspects related to the administration of the test itself, or to the application of resulting data (as pointed out by Paul Ramsey above) then I recommend we listen - carefully - and we should try to keep the very loaded reference to the "teacher's union" out of the discourse.


Norman Farrell said...

You damage your central argument by trying to support the Fraser Institute's annual report. That organization is hardly an unbiased arbiter since a declared goal is privatization of education, healthcare and most public services. Their objective is to lower confidence in the public education system and anyone with half a brain knows that.

You claim those studies could only have been done with FSA data. Oh really?

I think I'll rely on information from my son and his wife, both teachers with four university degrees between them and a sincere commitment to provide the best education experience possible to all students. Don't underestimate the expertise of professional educators, most of whom are not involved in union affairs or politics.

Anonymous said...

The purpose of the FSA tests have been to improve education and not be a tool used to compare one school against another. Nor is its purpose to destroy the public school system. Teachers have looked at the FSA results and have been telling the provincial government for years what needs to be done. They have continually said that smaller class sizes are needed, class composition must be considered, up to date resources are required and more help is needed for special needs students. The BC Liberal government has ignored the teachers.
Actually, the FSA tests were first instituted to help improve education and its delivery in BC. This is what the teachers have been doing, using the test results to tell the government where the shortcomings are. The government has dismissed them without any consideration as to the validity of the teacher’s responses. Instead the government and some commentators usually bad-mouths and/or ignores the teachers. Since the reason why the test was implemented is being ignored, they should be tossed.

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Frank said...

Why not grade schools based on their student's grade averages at the end of the year?

No extra testing, no "teaching to the test" but there's still data available to researchers.

Norman Farrell said...

Daniel's comment provides a link to spam. Unless you think it adds to the debate, why not deep six it and this with it.

daisy said...

If teachers are doing their jobs, this test shouldn't be a burden. They shouldn't have to teach anything that they aren't already be teaching. IF they're doing their jobs.

If they're so worried about seeing how their classes are performing, it should say a great deal about a teacher's performance in general.

Stooping to intimidating children by telling them that if their parents don't sign the form (to lie in order to excuse them from the test) that they will have to write some big scary test, should result in disciplinary action. Teachers bullying their students is the lowest form of low.

Anonymous said...

I wrote the FSA test a few years ago and I can honestly tell you that they are NOT stressful because they don't count for marks! Nor do they take up very much class time. The tests themselves take just a few hours -- twice in a student's entire K-12 education! -- and teachers should not (and, in my case, did not) teach to the test. That defeats the purpose of them.

Tests are a part of school. All students take tests, numerous times throughout their education. Sheltering students from tests isn't doing them any favours. If anything, the FSAs are LESS stressful than normal tests because they don't count for marks.

And as for the time argument, teachers spend WAY more time letting students watch dumb movies around Christmastime than they EVER will administering the FSAs.

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