Thursday, December 02, 2004

High school testing up to government, not union

VICTORIA - You've got two different issues in the current spat between the B.C. government and the teachers' union over province-wide testing for Grade 10 students.
On one level the debate is about whether the tests makes sense and will help students leave school with a better education.
At the same time, it's about who runs the school system and sets standards - the BC Teachers' Federation or the government.
I have my own unpleasant memories of provincial exams. I moved from Ontario to Quebec for my last year of high school, happy product of a system in which you didn't have to write any final exam at all if you muddled through the school year with half-decent marks.
But in Quebec - as well as having to wear a jacket, shirt and tie in a public high school - I found that in every course, your mark was based entirely on a single provincial exam. Bad news for those people who panicked, or happened to have the flu that day.
B.C. isn't going nearly that far. The newest provincial exams, for Grade 10 students, cover math, sciences and English language skills. They only count for 20 per cent of a students' mark for the year, and it's not necessary to pass the test - or even write it, for that matter - to pass the year. When the tests were used on a pilot basis last year, the pass rate ranged from a high of 89 per cent in English to a low of 76 per cent in science.
The education ministry says the exams will help make sure all students are leaving high school with basic skills.
The test results will also continue to be available by school and district, like the FSA tests they have replaced, so parents - and districts - can see how they are doing at educating students.
It seems like a reasonable set of goals.
But the BC Teachers' Federation disagrees, and is urging its members not to mark the essay answers that are part of the English exams. (Everything else is marked by machines.) If ordered to mark the exams, teachers are supposed to "comply with the order under protest."
The union's objections is only partly to the exams themselves. They also oppose a change that requires students to pass Grade 10 courses in English, Science, Social Studies, Math, Planning and Phys Ed as part of the qualifications for a high school diploma.
The Grade 10 courses are tougher than some of the options available to students in Grade 11 and 12, the teachers' federation says. Now, students can be fail the Grade 10 courses and be enrolled in less demanding courses in Grade 11 and 12. They can still pass those, and get a high school diploma. Without that alternative, the struggling students may just drop out.
It's a legitimate debate, and one that teachers have an important role in. A high school diploma has to mean something in terms of basic skills; the issue is whether the bar being set in requiring all students to pass a half-dozen Grade 10 courses is reasonable and useful. (Does it really make sense, for example, to deny a student a high school diploma because she failed Grade 10 phys ed or the traditionally lame Planning course?)
But teachers are just one voice in the discussion, and their opinions are compromised by their consistent opposition to any sort of external testing or evaluation of students - and implicitly of the relative effectiveness of teachers and schools. Parents and the community have a right to independent assessment of just how well children are learning.
The dispute comes against a background of wretched relations between this government and the teachers' federation. Both sides share the blame for that state of affairs.
But ultimately, the decision on what testing is required to ensure educational success rests with the government, not the BC Teachers' Federation.
Footnote: The wider issue is the ridiculous emphasis put on highly unreliable high school marks as an indicator of future success. Universities and colleges rely almost entirely on Grade 12 marks to admit students, a process that leaves some of the brightest and best stranded on the sidelines.


Anonymous said...

While I agree to some of what Mr. Willcocks presents in this article, I do not agree that the BCTF should sit on the sidelines and watch a potentially harmful standardized test be conducted in the name of "accountability". Yes, I am a BC teacher and see firsthand how quickly and how carelessly this new round of testing has been "dictated down" to the teachers. Yes, you are right Mr. Willcocks, the relationship between the BCTF and the Liberals IS abysmal. Ask yourself why? It was not the teachers that legislated a contract...and no, I am not trying to link this to the current testing boycott, just to point out that there are many reasons teachers feel that we do not count anymore on educational matters in BC. There is ample pedagical evidence that says standardized testing is flawed. Try going to Alfie Kohn's website...many good articles to read. Try Fairtest...a group that has been promoting better methods of assessment than multiple choice! To just blast at the teachers and blame the BCTF for "standing in the way of change or progress" is just another scapegoating tactic that diverts real issues like underfunding education, crowded classrooms, few resources, 113 closed schools, 3,000 teachers laid-off.

Anonymous said...

Ah. The problem is not the millions the BCTF spent in the election to defeat the Liberals. The problem is the government won't listen to "pedagical evidence". Thus the solution is...
a) Renounce pay checks as filthy Liberal lucre
b) Add another ProD day to the year
c) Appeal to the UN
d) Give Simms a makeover