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How Giving Kids a Test Became a Political War

What's the FSA exam ruckus about? Here's your answer sheet.

By Linda Solomon 14 Jan 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Linda Solomon is a frequent contributor to The Tyee and edits and publishes the Vancouver Observer e-zine.

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Should we be publicizing school performance?

On the website of the Fraser Institute, Christmas music tinkles as the conservative think tank's fellows express their wishes for the coming year. Peter Cowley, whose title is director of school performance results, hopes for the privatization of more schools.

"I wish that ministries of education across Canada would remember that they are just that, ministries of education," Cowley intones. "Not simply ministries of public schools. I wish that they would introduce policies which would encourage many more private schools to establish themselves across the country. By doing so they will ensure that many Canadian families will be able to find a school that meets their kids' unique needs."

In another section of the Vancouver-based organization's website, Crowley appears in a longer video promoting how the Fraser Institute uses the results from the government's province-wide standardized testing system, a test known as the Foundational Skills Assessment (FSA). For the last nine years, the Fraser Institute has used the test results to create a ranking system for B.C.'s schools and this "school report card" appears under banner headlines on the front pages of newspapers across the province.

"Yes, it does create winners and losers," Crowley says in the video. Of teachers and parents who oppose the tests, he says: "They don't want the schools to compete for their betterment. I find that absurd."

But last night Vancouver's school board trustees signaled it takes seriously those who oppose the exam. The board voted to send a letter providing information about the FSA, including ministry-approved reasons a parent can have their child excused from taking the test.

In 2007, in 13 B.C. elementary schools, less than half the students took the Grade 7 reading part of the test, and in 26 more schools, a quarter of the students opted out of that portion.

The long simmering fight over the worth of the test has for years pitted the Fraser Institute and B.C. Education Ministry against the B.C. Teachers Federation, both sides finding allies among parents, academics, aboriginal leaders and just about any other group with a stake in how schools can be made to work best for kids.

The argument reached a political flash point last month when the teachers union's members voted not to participate in administering the tests to students this year.

"The dispute is provincial between the Ministry of Education and the BCTF," said Vancouver school board chair Patti Bacchus. "What we're hearing from our parent groups is it's causing confusion and misunderstanding. We're trying to minimize distraction and conflict at the school level," she said, explaining why the board is sending out the FSA letter.

The union argues the FSA is a waste of time -- 16 hours in class and extra teacher hours for grading -- and of money. At least a half a million dollars goes into administering the tests, given to students across the province in Grades 4 and 7.

And union leaders say it wasn't their idea to play politics with a test supposedly intended to help strengthen public school performance. The Fraser Institute, they argue, uses the results to cast schools with poorer student populations in a bad light and to build their case that private schooling is superior.

Teacher: 'Human element does not show up'

"The BCTF's FSA campaign is not about politics," the union's president Irene Lanzinger told The Tyee. "We're not opposed to the FSA. We just want it done differently so we can put an end to the unfair ranking by the Fraser Institute. Teachers are not alone on this. Every single education partner group, including trustees, principals, superintendents and even the minister herself has spoken out against the rankings."

So why does the government allow the Fraser Institute to use (or misuse, depending on your point of view) the results? "They get them through the Freedom of Information Act,'" Lanzinger said. "Everybody has access to them."

The Fraser Institute maintains it is providing a service that parents across B.C. want. They claim to have polled more than a thousand parents, finding "overwhelming support" for the FSAs.

Joanna Larson, a teacher in Prince Rupert on maternity leave, told The Tyee the Fraser Institute's report card has humiliated her community, year after year. With a student population that is about 50 per cent aboriginal, most of the elementary schools in town get the worse "grade" on the institute's list of schools, showing up at the bottom of the provincial rankings. And, said Larson, these schools offer some of the province's poorest and most disadvantaged children dedicated teachers, support and love.

"The human element does not show up in the ranking system," Larson said. "We're a small community of about 12,000 people. The rankings are published on the front page of the daily paper. It makes the students feel bad. But you just can't get your head in the mindset that you're the worst in the province, because you see the kids every day and you know they're not the worst in the province. You can't buy into that."

Roosevelt Park Elementary in Prince Rupert placed last in the provincial rankings a few years ago. Strapped with the label of "worse school in B.C.," the school drew the attention of CBC reporter Mark Kelley. He spent a week there as a teacher, and did an in-depth documentary on his experiences. "I don't have a school of losers," the principal tells Kelley in the film. "I have a school of beautiful human beings who are going to go places." Later in the film the principal points out that the schools' problems are societal.

At the end of the documentary, Kelley concludes that "we need to see these kids differently. So they can see themselves differently. For those that think this is the worst school in B.C., I suggest they spend a week here as a teacher. Then they can find out themselves."

Larson taught at Kanata Elementary. It was second to the bottom of the Fraser Institute's ranking list in B.C. last year. It is now closed. "Whether or not there's a direct link, I can't prove," Larson said. "If that school had scored in the top 10, I doubt it would have been closed. The kids had to move to the two other schools on that side of town, which are very overcrowded now."

Larson explained how the FSAs can humiliate children who don't test well. "We have students in Grade 4 who are reading at a Grade 1 level, due to learning disabilities. My friend who is a teacher told me about a student in her Grade 4 class. He was forced to do the test online and he couldn't do it because he can't read at that level. He just sat there and cried. It was frustration that made him so upset. And he couldn't do it. And your instructions as a teacher are that you can't help students. His teacher finally said, 'This is ridiculous.' And his teacher read to him. What else could she do? What else can you do when you have a student crying in front of you?"

Bond: 'Every parent has a right to know'

Elisabeth Geller has three sons, all of whom have been in the Vancouver school system. She questions the Fraser Institute's numbers and motives in publishing its rankings.

"My eldest son was a star pupil, honor roll, advanced placement in courses in high school, graduated with very high marks. Clearly tests worked for him. My youngest son, who is part of the GOLD (Gifted with Learning Disabilities) program has mediocre grades, works hard for As and is generally in the middle of the pack for academic testing. Clearly, tests are not a good measure of his abilities, but that's what this standardized testing would have us believe."

Sue Bannister is a teacher in the Comox system. She worked in the Ministry of Education for a year. Her job was to facilitate marking of the tests. "I don't think 16 hours of testing is a good use of my child's time," she said. "The whole thing of making the results public is wrong."

Donna Bracewell is principal of The Linnaea School, on Cortes Island, a small Waldorf-esque school in a bucolic setting that isn't unionized. She doesn't like the tests either.

"Delivering the FSA takes a week out of the core academic time of english and math," Bracewell told The Tyee. "They are given in February when barely half of the year's curriculum has been taught. Although the ministry says they have been adjusted to take that into account, our students always encounter a fair bit of material in the math section that we have not yet taught."

Finally, she said, the tests don't reflect the quality of learning at the school. "Students do not come in standard packages with standard ways of understanding or demonstrating knowledge. To assess our students' success we trust our teachers to know the curriculum expectations and learning outcomes and to know our students' strengths and weaknesses and learning styles. How they do on an artificial, externally delivered test is of little relevance to how they interpret the world or implement the vast scope of skills they are acquiring as learners."

B.C. Minister of Education Shirley Bond isn't swayed by such arguments for abandoning the test, and believes most parents support the FSA because "they want more information about their child's progress, not less." In an e-mail forwarded to The Tyee by her public relations aide, she wrote "every parent has a right to know how their child is doing in school." Bond declined to be interviewed.

Children's Rep: FSA safeguards 'at-risk students'

In the e-mail, Bond said she was "so disappointed" by the BCTF's announced boycott of the FSA because the results "provide parents, teachers, and principals with valuable information on how every student is performing in reading, writing and math. This insightful and important tool helps to ensure students are meeting expectations for their grade level." Bond noted that B.C.'s independent representative for children and youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, supports the test.

In a column she published in the Vancouver Sun in 2007, Turpel-Lafond said, "Abandoning standardized testing in its present form means abandoning at-risk students." She said the tests give an invaluable picture of how at-risk kids are doing province wide and that this picture can be used to help make the public schools better.

The B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils (BCCPAC) last month published a press release endorsing the FSA test, stating "parents have expressed a strong desire, not only for Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) tests to continue, but also to individually receive test results for their own children in a timely fashion." Ron Broda, president of BCCPAC, is quoted saying the BCTF's boycott of the test "is very disappointing" and that teachers should "carefully consider their position of influence as role models to young students."

In the Vancouver Sun, Broda was quoted indicating the teachers' union was trying to "challenge" the government. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

BCTF president Lanzinger said her members voted 85 per cent against giving the tests because they are a poor use of time and funds, and education for children suffers.

"If you calculate the lost time in school and teacher time, and the cost of marking the tests, you're talking about millions of dollars. There are way better uses for this money. We could give resources to kids who need them, particularly support for kids with special needs. That's a huge gap in our system."

Union head: 'How you undermine public ed'

Lanzinger accused the BC Liberal government of "pandering to a group of their supporters who are for the privatization of education. They're a privatization government. They've privatized a lot of health care. They introduced legislation that allows the charging of fees in public schools. They are starting up B.C. curriculum schools all over the world for profit. So, their goals are not that different from the Fraser Institute in some ways.

"Here is how you undermine public education," Lanzinger added. "You overemphasize standardized testing, rank schools, undermine public confidence in schools by ranking them and saying the ones at the bottom aren't good. Once public confidence goes down: privatize."

The Fraser Institute did not respond to e-mail requests to comment for this story.

School board chair: Try something new

Bacchus said that within the Vancouver school district, the Fraser Institute's rankings are perceived by many teachers and parents as a political initiative, and as "misleading and not an appropriate use of the data." Teachers say the numbers don't help them do their jobs any better. "The message we're hearing from our educators is they don't find the FSA data collection and reporting informing their practice and identifying what is working."

At a public forum hosted by the VSB last week, said Bacchus, Fraser Institute representatives traded views with members of other groups in "a really open dialogue." What became clear, she said, is a widely held desire for "an assessment model that gives us the kind of information educators need" and public access to data parents will find "meaningful."

Bacchus said some of that work is already underway in schools, yielding approaches that may well be more effective than the FSA.

"It would be absolutely wonderful if the ministry would take the lead on something like that. But there's a determination to plow ahead with the FSA. We'd rather get on with something that people support," Bacchus said.

Related Tyee stories:

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