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.