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First Nations Leaders Are Right to Back Student Assessments

BC’s Teachers’ Federation wants provincewide FSA exams ended. But they’re needed ‘for addressing inequities.’

Charles Ungerleider 29 Nov

Charles Ungerleider is professor emeritus of education at UBC. During his tenure as B.C. deputy minister for education, the Foundation Skills Assessments supported by First Nations were first introduced.

Opposition to provincial assessments of literacy and numeracy at Grade 4 and 7 has put the BC Teachers’ Federation in conflict with the leadership of British Columbia First Nations. The BCTF’s efforts to cancel provincewide assessments have me wondering if the federation is abandoning its tradition of social justice.

The BCTF’s website proclaims that “we accept and act on our broad responsibility to be involved in the social development of the communities, province and world in which we live. We are responsible for being and creating active citizens who work for the betterment of humanity.” And indeed, the BC Teachers’ Federation has a long history of support for social justice dating from the early 1970s, standing up for principles that were not widely accepted at the time, including support for negotiated land claims settlements in 1976 and support for minority and Native language instruction in 1976.

The BCTF asserts that its opposition to the provincial assessments arises from the fact that the Fraser Institute uses the data to rank schools. But its opposition to standardized testing predates the Fraser Institute’s use of the data.

In a request from federation president Teri Mooring to parents to withdraw their children from the B.C. Foundation Skills Assessment, it asserts that “teachers do not believe the FSA is a reliable method of measuring individual progress” and that “the best source of information about your children’s progress is their classroom teacher.”

What Mooring fails to acknowledge is that classroom teachers make value-laden judgments about students and their performance. The perceptions of students that teachers hold — consciously or unconsciously — and their expectations about student abilities contribute to the gap between majority and minority group students. The existence of an external reference for student performance provides a check against the negative impact that teacher perceptions might have. In B.C., one of the very few external reference points are provincial assessments.

One year ago, in November 2021, the First Nations Leadership Council, representatives of First Nations Chiefs throughout the province, wrote a letter to Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside expressing serious concern about “the ongoing targeted attack campaign, in particular by the BC Teachers’ Federation, to have the Foundation Skills Assessment cancelled in B.C. public schools. The First Nations Leadership Council strongly disagrees with and is alarmed by actions that erode public confidence in provincewide assessments necessary for addressing inequities within K-12 education.”

The letter explains that “the ‘call’ for parents to withdraw their children from the assessments... undermines the quality and reliability of information that is intended to inform system-wide interventions to support the needs of populations underserved and marginalized by public education systems.”

First Nations are determined to hold the education system responsible for closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous learners. The Foundation Skills Assessment is one of the few tools for determining whether that gap is closing.

The origins of standardized assessments — like the Foundation Skills Assessment to which the Teachers’ Federation objects — were deeply intertwined with the racism, sexism and eugenics common more than a century ago. Today’s standardized assessments are closely scrutinized using sophisticated statistical methodologies to avoid the biases of their predecessors.

Provincewide assessments like the Foundation Skills Assessment help to gauge student progress over time and determine whether gaps between sub-groups of students are increasing or diminishing. The Foundation Skills Assessment has no consequences for students, unlike classroom-based tests which play a part in determining a student’s educational trajectory.

If successful, the BCTF’s campaign to destroy the Foundation Skills Assessment would remove an important pillar of quality assurance and an indispensable tool for eliminating the achievement gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous learners.

On Nov. 16, 2022, the Leadership Council again wrote to the president of the BCTF and the representatives of its locals throughout the province, this time expressing “disappointment and frustration with the union’s continued campaign to discredit and cancel the Foundation Skills Assessment in B.C. provincial public schools.”

The letter calls attention to its previous expression of concern about the BCTF campaign against provincial assessment and to the fact that the BCTF circulated material to parents calling on them “to withdraw their children from the assessments were distributed immediately prior to the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30, 2022.”

The letter makes clear that the First Nations leadership and the First Nations Education Steering Committee regard the provincial assessments as an essential tool in addressing “the systemic racism experienced by First Nations learners and families within the public education system.” The letter refers to the previous letter to Minister Whiteside that makes the point that the provincial assessments are “key to identifying system-wide strengths and weaknesses within the education system, and help us to measure and advance equity for students through planning, intervention and support.”

The letter makes clear that the BCTF’s campaign against provincial assessment is contrary to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the BC Teachers' Federation’s professed support for reconciliation.

The Leadership Council concludes the 2022 letter by calling on the federation “to immediately cease this campaign in recognition of the authority and perspective of First Nations to determine the priorities of First Nations education.”

If the BCTF succeeds in its effort to destroy provincial assessment, it will besmirch its reputation for social justice and its professed commitment to the interests of Indigenous children.

The Leadership Council’s defence of the importance of provincial assessment to ensuring equity is not confined to Indigenous students. First Nations are standing up for all children in B.C.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Education

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