Monday, December 22, 2008

Teachers' union opposition to FSA test unfair to children

It would be a great loss to toss out the Foundation Skills Assessment tests and the chance for more effective public education.
The B.C. Teachers' Federation - and a lot of teachers - want the tests dumped. They are both wrong and short-sighted.
The FSA tests are taken annually by every student in Grades 4 and 7. They provide a snapshot of reading, writing and numeracy skills.
Most parents like the information. They might know how their children are doing and have report cards from school. But the tests are a useful way to help confirm a child is mastering some critical skills.
The teachers' union doesn't like the tests, which among other things, allows comparisons between the success rate in schools, or classrooms. School superintendents aren't that keen either. Districts can also be assessed using the results.
Even Education Minister Shirley Bond, who blasted the teachers' federation on the issue, has been critical of the use of the results. Bond is a former school board chair in Prince George.
The tests are far from perfect. The information they provide has been neglected. There are risks of misuse.
But they're still great tools. For parents, obviously. But also for anyone who cares about doing a better job for students.
The opposition to the tests seems contrived or wrongheaded. The teachers' union says students are stressed by the tests. But it's hard to see why, unless the stress comes from the teacher. There's nothing riding on the tests, and students can be told that.
The union complains about lost teaching time. But two sets of tests in eight years hardly seems a problem.
The union fears teachers are spending too much time preparing students for the tests. If that's a problem, they should stop. There's no need to cram for skills tests.
Then there are the philosophical arguments. The information should not be gathered because someone might misuse it. You can't measure education. The exams just test literacy and numeracy skills, and don't assess all the things that schools provide students. They don't reflect students' backgrounds. The whole idea of testing is seen as a plot by some.
Of course the tests don't measure all the wonderful things schools offer students. But reading, writing and numeracy, those are fundamental enough to be worth measuring.
Of course some people could misuse the data. But that argument could be used to shut down almost every form of research being done in the academic world today. It is a prescription for ignorance.
And of course the results don't reflect different social and economic factors. It is an absolute certainly that the children sent to a $20,000-a-year private school in Vancouver will score better than their Grade 4 counterparts in a school in poor inner city neighbourhood or struggling resource community. But everyone knows that. The results also let you compare schools dealing with similar student populations.
If one is achieving much better results in the core skills tests, we should know that.
The tests should encourage different ways of teaching or preparing children for school or involving parents. Creative, bright people in the system can test new approaches and measure how well they work.
And the results allow valuable research. In the last four weeks, a Simon Fraser University professor released a study on the gap in FSA scores between aboriginal and non-aboriginal students in B.C. Some districts have almost closed the gap; in others, it remains dramatic. The study identified strategies that help improve aboriginal students' success. That could not have been done without the FSA results as a starting point. (The study, of course, adjusted to compensate for socio-economic factors.)
The FSA tests aren't perfect. But eliminating them would be a great step backward.
Instead, parents and teachers should be using the results to learn. And to force the government to provide the support needed so all schools can achieve the best results for children.
Footnote: The teachers' federation is threatening a boycott of the tests. That's irresponsible. The union doesn't run the school system and is accountable to no one but its members. Elected trustees and the provincial government have a mandate to make decisions about education.


Anonymous said...

I'm not a teacher but we do have one in the family. She has been on the job for three years and has a pretty solid understanding of the kids in her classes.She takes her resonsibilities very seriously , she doesn't think the test is of great value.

Seems to me the teachers have a pretty sound knowledge of their students. The teachers have the best interest in those kids. Let's spend teacher and student time motivating the slow ones, supporting the really bright ones and lastly get those class sizes down. It tloks like a quick fix for the parents who don't show up to support the schools or even attend the teacher parent meetings.
Yes the teachers don't run the system but they are the professionals and some school boards and lots of politicians arn't that helpful by pushing for tests the teachers find unworkable and harmful to the kids who are the slow learners or physically challenged. So I guess we disagree Paul, which is one of very few times so far. What other professionals get score cards on their patients, or customers?

Anonymous said...

I have to strongly disagree with you on this one, Paul. I've been a strong advocate for more accountability for struggling kids and for strengthening big gaps in our public education system, but our "flat-lined" achievement scores and growing gaps shows that FSAs in their current format are doing nothing to to address that.

To answer the question of whether FSAs are useful, you need to break it into its components:

1) Individual student achievement: There are far better tools than FSAs to see how your own kid is doing - the notion of waiting until FSAs midway through Grade 4 to find out your kid isn't measuring up is ludicrous - that's way too late! You need early assessment and intervention in the primary grades if you're serious about addressing achievement gaps. And with the recent change to having local teachers marking their own tests, the literacy scoring is no less subjective than report cards - which defeats the whole point of having an independent provincial assessment!

The only way to get a good handle on your child's performance is by monitoring report cards, homework, in-class tests and talking to teachers. That's how you ensure that little problems don't become big problems. Perpetuating the myth that parents can count on FSAs to see how their kids are doing does both a tremendous disservice and lets everyone from the Minister on down off the hook for doing what needs to be done to address the major gaps in early assessment and intervention.

(FYI: I've never bought the "stress" complaint - that's not intrinsic to the FSA & has more to do with how parents, teachers and peers treat it.)

2) Teacher accountability: It seems to be a widely-held myth that FSAs can identify and hold "bad teachers" accountable and that this is why BCTF opposes it. But a one-time test of skills built over 3-4 years has never and can never tell you which teacher is responsible if someone's failing, especially with the numerous other factors that influence individual achievement. You need effective individual appeal mechanisms to address concerns about "bad apples" and perpetuating the myth again just distracts us all from what's really needed.

3) Is your school measuring up? FSAs can't tell you that - they tell you far more about your school's demographics (percentage of ESL, special needs or low-income kids in the class that took the test and/or propportion of those who were "excused" by the principal to artificially inflate scores). My son's elementary and secondary schools both score very low based on FSA scores and all the PAC parents at both schools agree they both do an extraordinary job with a challenging population and they wouldn't consider moving their kid to a better-ranked school.

I get calls all the time from other parents of kids in crisis shopping around for a new school and I always tell them to do what I did - go and visit the school in person - it's the only way to get a sense of whether it's a good fit for your child.

4) System-level assessment. This is the strength of FSAs. They CAN give you very useful information on broad trends - how is the system doing overall - are there regional anomalies or realtive performance gaps among sub-populations like kids in care or Aboriginal kids. This system tracking can also be done through random sampling, supplemented by occasional in-depth analysis if and where required. This is the compromise approach that teachers have proposed to save the FSAs while putting a halt to misuse of data by the Fraser Institute.

COSTS: Switching to random sampling would also cut the enormous costs of administering FSAs. The Ministry estimate of $1.6 million a year excludes most of the costs downloaded to schools, which are huge. We estimated more than 20 hours for one Grade 4 class (prep, practise, 4.5 hours of test time, marking, analysis, not to mention lost library and computer lab time for others). That's more than a week out of a 37-week year to cover 6 or 7 core subject areas. If I took my kid for an extra week's vacation, his teachers would berate me for being irresponsible. Imagine the benefits of that teacher instead spening a week providing one-on-one remedial teaching in core skills to the 4 - 5 kids struggling at the bottom of her class!!

PARTICIPATION: Misuse of FSA data for the Fraser Institute rankings has punished schools that serve the most challenging kids - low scoring schools are perceived as "bad schools", lose enrolment and that means further funding cuts to schools that need more supports, not less. This has led to a tremendous erosion of confidence, with parents in Vancouver and elsewhere increasingly boycotting the test, thus threatening the integrity of data from the current census-tyle approach. Our DPAC has now taken the position that no parent should be pressured to make their kid take the test.

Add this to a host of other problems - Minister Bond changed the tests to mid-year, so many classes haven't covered much of the material on the test when they take it; another methodology change this year means you can no longer compare the data to previous years (a serious loss!); switching to local marking defeats the idea of having an objective check on how local teachers are assessing literacy levels...

What I'd like to see:

1) The FSAs saved in some form to enable us to do high-level system tracking, including identification of regional and sub-population trends to highlight areas for closer analysis. The only proposal I've heard to restore confidence and avert a collapse is the random sampling compromise. The Minister hasn't explained why she thinks that won't solve it and she hasn't offered anything else to address the various concerns, so the ball is in her court.

2) The media & the Fraser Institute need to stop perpetuating the myth that FSA can provide effective individual assessment, teacher accountability or school-level accountability, so that we can start discussing what we actually need to do if we want all those things.

3)A reformed FSA needs to be tied to a provincial program that provides the necessary resources and supports to fix identified problems. The current approach is about as effective as handing out dunce caps!

paul said...

Dawn Steele;
We do disagree. I think FSAs can be used as a tools to help assess performance on a school level. And that should let us learn from the successful schools and transfer those practices. It's not that hard to compare like with like, in terms of socio-economic issues.
I also think parents and teachers and anyone else who cares about kids should be using the results to club the Education MInistry into better performance. Children in the schools with the poorest results are being cheated of a fair chance in life. The government should be fixing that. We should be tracking the gap between the 20 poorest-performing schools and the average and demanding it be closed. (And the solutions might have little to do with the classroom and much to do with the lives of children and families.)
But, I have a tonne of respect for your insight; you might be right.
And isn't it great that technology has offered a forum where the dual views can be set out.
Paul Willcocks

RossK said...


As someone who has two kids in the system that has struggled mightily with this issue, I've gotta side with Ms. Steele on this one.

But never mind all that for a moment, because not only do these fora help facilitate honest discussion between folks with dual views, they also allow outside observers to form opinions about those who make their views known.

As such, I have come to the conclusion that I, for one, sure wish that Ms. Steele would run for public office because I believe she would be a fantastic and truly knowledgable legislator who would do her best to do what's right for the kids of this province regardless the party she aligned herself with.


Anonymous said...

Fair enough, Paul - I'm just one opinionated parent...

(... and thank you for your kind words, Gazetteer, but I know my limitations! :-)

I agree with Paul that school-level accountability is key, & I think that resolving this is especially important because there has been a significant devolution towards school-based management under the current government. But IMHO it will take a lot more than FSAs & I also fear that we're fighting a losing battle if we continue trying to impose an approach that the key players don't support.

Vancouver has been trying other things like appreciative enquiry to share best practices. I was initially skeptical, but came to appreciate the idea of "catching more flies" with positive approaches like this that encourage respectful dialogue and buy-in from frontline people and that focus more on solutions than blame.

Jerry Mussio, a retired MoE bureaucrat who was involved in this area for years, has an interesting summary of the history of this test over on Steffenblog, where we've been having a hearty debate about it. One of the points he makes is that the current framework has left an accountability gap at the school level - I would love to hear that explained further.

I also found the discussions on this topic on the "Education Matters" cable TV show hosted by SFU's Dean of Education Paul Shaker very useful. Anyone interested in this can access the August and April 2008 shows on the web at:

I don't see any hope of BCTF backing down now after an 85% endorsement vote from their members. So an informed discussion leading to some sensible compromise solutions to save what's truly useful about FSAs while getting rid of useless irritants would seem to me to be in everyone's interest.

paul said...

I'd vote for Dawn Steele too.
But I'd worry about what she faced if she got elected.
Paul Willcocks

Anonymous said...

Teachers are not being hard-nosed about this. The Ministry, politicians and the Fraser Institute ilk are the real problem. It is a DOGMA that they have. Public education bad - private education (for those who can afford it) good. One has only to research the trends in private education to see this. Charter schools, French schools, religious schools, vouchers, open boundaries, specialty schools, etc. This all 'pulls' children out of the public system and into 'for profit' schools. Yes, yes I know private schools are not allowed to make a profit but why do they have resources that public schools can only dream about? The FSA test are just a weapon in the hands of the really anti-public school lobby. Check out the Chicago schools issues, New Mexico and the Pueblo, Colorado troubles. And for a real eye opener - what happened in New Zealand , the firing of the Minister of Education, Lockwood-Smith over the very type of issues we are now facing here in British Columbia. Dogma always seems to win out over common sense. Too bad but that seems to be the pattern of political stupidity.

RossK said...

She could handle it.

(and I see the fact that she actually can recognize her limitations as one more plus)


Anonymous said...

If the tests are so great at assessments then North Oyster should be getting tons of help because it is almost always the worst. But never does the school board or ministry ever pick up that it has a preponderance of scholastically challenged kids from very poor families. Many of the children there should have much more help than the teachers can give them due to the lack of EA's. If my kids were still in school I would let them blow the test mark answer 1 or A for every question.

Anonymous said...

Front of the class for PW for he needs to be paying more attention to what the BCTF is saying.

They are not against FSA, they are against the FSA test being used to grade schools!

Anonymous said...

Nobody is talking about 'teaching for the test' and whether that helps or hinders the kids. Anecdotal evidence seems to show it is not helpful.

Anonymous said...

I'm with PW on this one. Despite its imperfections, this testing is still useful and if you asked most parents they would tell you that they should be the ones deciding what is and isn't useful information -- not a third party bargaining organization.

And all-or-nothing ultimatum from the BCTF is a foolish move on their part and threatens to set relationships with parents back years unless they start treating the education system like a partnership instead of constant battleground. I do think this is a case where the political motives of the union are taking precedence over stability in the classrooms.

And PS, I still haven't gotten a straight answer about how moving to randomized testing like the BCTF suggests is going to make the Fraser Institute changed their methods. Why the BCTF continues to make that the target in this debate is a red herring.

Anonymous said...

The tests are far from perfect. The information they provide has been neglected. There are risks of misuse.
But they're still great tools.

For whateverver reason, Paul felt compelled to regurgitate the anti-teacher federation talking points, which is not his typical modus operandi.

At the very least he should concede he went a little overboard. How can something that he is willing to concede is "far from perfect" be a "great" tool?

Anonymous said...

Public school is a tragedy for most children. It teaches them only to conform. The more they conform the more praise they receive. If they try and resist or step out they are seen as problems that need to be fixed. Where are the children in all this? Obviously no one cares about them but only about their PROGRESS. Standardized testing is another way to try and standardize children.

Of course you'll say, "I love my child, I just want them to have good grades to they can..." But if you really loved your children would you send them some place they hated for 12 years? My son told me that in his school (before I pulled him out) that someone had written "school is jail" on the bathroom wall. For many kids it's just like prison -- having to go somewhere everyday that they hate. Being told constantly what to do and when to do it. Where is the freedom?

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