Patti Bacchus: It’s high time to do away with the FSA

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      Why are we still debating the Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) for grades four and seven students? It’s been going on since my now-adult kids were in primary school, and even then, teachers told me they found the tests worthless.

      Not only does the FSA waste hours of class time (especially disruptive for split classes where some do the tests and others don’t)—with students sitting in front of computers (more screen time!) answering standardized-test questions—the privatization-promoting Fraser Institute uses results to publish predictable and harmful school rankings.

      Those rankings show that students from affluent families—with well-educated parents who can afford to give their kids warm beds, nutritious food, and stimulating recreational activities—outperform those with fewer advantages. And that students from private schools that charge steep tuition and screen their applicants do better on tests.

      Gee whiz, what a surprise.

      What’s more egregious is how the rankings affect schools in less affluent communities: when parents in those communities with the means decide to send their kids to higher-ranked schools or programs outside their home communities on discovering their local schools’ low rank. That leads to enrollment decline in lower-income communities, which leads to funding redcutions (because the B.C. Liberals moved to a per-student funding model years ago). Funding reductions lead to staffing cuts, which may mean a school loses its vice principal, counsellor, librarian, or resource teacher’s hours.

      Declining enrollment catches the eye of school district facility managers and the Ministry of Education, which view vacant seats in schools as waste that needs eliminating, and the pressure comes to “consolidate” underenrolled schools by closing some. That can destabilize already vulnerable communities that rely on local schools for more than class time, including childcare, meal programs, and other extracurricular supports.

      In Vancouver, this disproportionately affects schools that support higher proportions of Indigenous students and students for whom English is a second language.

      Parents in these lower-income communities may be working multiple part-time jobs or not have a car, making getting their kids to a school farther from home difficult. Some rely on grandparents to walk kids to school, which gets harder, or impossible, if the school closes and they have to go to one farther away. Schools with low enrollment get bumped down the seismic-upgrade priority list, while fuller schools in more affluent areas will move up the list.

      Make no mistake: the FSA is a social-justice issue and has negative consequences for the already disadvantaged, as I’ve watched play out during two decades in Vancouver public schools.

      But here we go again

      Guess who said, "Students should be focused on a whole host of other issues, not writing tests that largely end up being used by think tanks to grade schools"? That was a fella named John Horgan, in 2017, but despite being premier, he’s done zip to end them.

      Premier John Horgan

      In fact, Horgan’s government, or at least his deputy minister of education, has doubled down on the reviled test, pressuring school superintendents to make sure more kids write them. In October 2019, that deputy minister, Scott MacDonald, sent an email (that I obtained through a freedom-of-information request) summoning superintendents from the 10 school districts with the lowest FSA participation rates to meet with him to “have a small group discussion on the topic of FSA participation rates” and about “strategies to improve our rates in the time remaining this year and set a path for sustained improvement in years ahead”.

      In case they didn’t get the message, MacDonald followed up a week later with letter to each of the low-participation superintendents, saying the FSA is “an essential aspect of quality assurance to the public” He also reminded them of a ministerial order: “The Student Learning Assessment Order”, requiring the tests be administered “and information collected according to the Minister’s instructions”, adding that he’d send an additional letter to all school districts “stressing both the importance of FSA and the mandatory requirement for student to write the assessments”.

      He made himself crystal clear, and, presumably, Horgan is fine with that.

      Superintendents are employees of their elected school boards, but they also have statutory obligations to the Ministry of Education, and most will answer “how high” when a deputy minister directs them to jump, although I’ve known a few courageous ones who will resist when directions aren’t in students’ best interests.

      I haven’t seen indications of superintendents’ resistance on the FSA issue the past couple of years. Richmond superintendent of schools Scott Robinson, who I worked with for years at the VSB when he was an associate superintendent and later as superintendent, took all of 10 minutes to respond to MacDonald’s email with “happy to discuss”.

      Richmond schools superintendent Scott Robinson
      Scott Robinson

      While Robinson may have been willing to play along, he didn’t do as well as Gulf Islands superintendent Scott Benwell, who MacDonald emailed a month later with the subject line “Gold Star!”, congratulating Benwell on being the superintendent with the biggest increase in FSA participation rates.

      This might explain why so many parents are finding that requests to have their kids opt out of the controversial tests are getting pushback from school principals. Those principals are getting pressure from their superintendents, who don’t want to get invited to another sit-down with the deputy minister.

      Is there any value to the tests?

      I try to keep an open mind. I’d been thinking that maybe, just maybe, the test might be useful this year to gauge the effects of last spring’s emergency move to remote learning on students, in terms of academic progress. 

      Yet this year they changed the timing of the test: instead of October, it will start in mid-February and run to mid-March. Results don’t have to be submitted to the ministry until April, so I doubt schools and parents will get results until near the end of the school year.

      That change will make comparisons to last year essentially meaningless, given the test is being administered so much later in the school year, making data comparisons an apples-to-oranges endeavour.

      Last school year, an education ministry spokesperson told me by email, presumably in defense of the test, “Students now write the FSA in the fall, instead of the winter, so the results can be used to help teachers and schools make early decisions to support student learning where challenges are identified.”

      As I wrote in a column back then, I’ve met a lot of teachers over the years and I’ve yet to have one tell me they need a standardized government test to determine which students are struggling. I sure as heck don’t know any who wait to see how their students do on the FSA to figure out how to teach them. That’s moot this year anyway, because the test has been bumped until later in the school year, with results too late to be of any practical in-class use.

      Isn’t this year stressful enough for teachers and students?

      The B.C. Teachers’ Federation, which has long opposed the test, saying it's an unreliable indicator of individual student progress that take time away from meaningful teaching and learning, is especially concerned about adding another layer of stress to kids who are struggling with the pandemic and its effects this year.

      No kidding. That last thing any of us need right now is a six-hour online test that has no proven benefits.

      Let’s hope the new education minister deals with this

      I’m optimistic that B.C.’s new education minister, Jennifer Whiteside, may deal with the FSA issue eventually, although I doubt she’ll do it in time for this year, which is unfortunate. When I spoke to her a few weeks ago, she said the test was going ahead this year but that she was open to a discussion beyond that.

      Educastion Minister Jennifer Whiteside

      Whiteside comes from the health-care sector, where it would be absurd to direct doctors and nurses to administer annual assessments on their patients and submit the results to government, especially if medical professionals said the tests were a waste of valuable time with their patients.

      My hope is Whiteside will demonstrate respect for B.C.’s teaching professionals, who know more about what students need than those outside classrooms.

      At the very least, the test should be optional. Given that it's a data-collection exercise and the data is made public to be used by researchers and the likes of the Fraser Institute, parents should have to provide written consent for their kids to participate and for their data to be shared.

      Frankly, I’m weary of this long debate, and it’s time it was put to rest. Over to you, Minister Whiteside.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.