The controversial Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) was one of the first issues I had to deal with as the newly elected chair of the Vancouver School Board, back in 2008.
The tests are given to B.C.’s grades four and seven students each year and are supposed to measure how well students are progressing in literacy and math skills. What the public mostly sees, however, is how the right-wing Fraser Institute misuses them to rank schools.
As a parent, I was familiar with the FSAs, and each of my kids wrote the test once and sat it out once. Their tests results didn’t tell me anything new, and far less than what a five-minute conversation with their teachers could tell me about how they were doing in school.
School boards—and their trustees and chairs—are caught between the provincial Ministry of Education, which directs school districts to administer the test to students in a set time period, and parents who may or may not want their kids to write them.
There’s also pressure on boards from the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) , which has been fighting the tests and their misuse for years.
I heard from parents who had asked for their kids to be excused but were being pressured by principals to have their kids write the tests. Even more troubling, some parents whose children had special needs were advised to have their kids sit the tests out—lest they bring their school’s results down.
The VSB’s district parent advisory council, which represents Vancouver parents, told us they wanted parents’ decisions about whether or not their kids should write the tests to be respected, given how politicized the tests had become.
We tried to find a balance and alleviate the tension between principals and parents by sending a letter home with factual information about the FSAs and a form with a box they could check off if they wanted their kids exempted from the tests.
We did that for the eight years I served on the VSB, and it worked fine. Now the district’s superintendent sends parents a letter about the FSAs that says it’s up to principals to identify students who may be excused from participating, based on criteria set out by government. There’s no mention of an option for parents to have their kids opt out anymore.
My VSB letter to parents about the FSA and their opt-out options used to drive a certain radio host nuts, and she had me on her show once to argue about it. I told her the board’s expectation was that most kids would write the test, but we respected parents’ right to decide whether their kids did so or not. Each year, hundreds of parents of kids in VSB schools asked to have their kids skip the test. She said I was a tough interview and then she went on to become premier.
It’s testing time, again
Here we are again in the annual FSA testing period again. The tests used to be given after the winter break, but now they’re administered in the fall, just as students are getting settled into class.
A statement from the Ministry of Education says the switch to fall is so teachers and schools can use the results to make changes “in how they support students learning where challenges are identified”. They won’t get the results until close to winter break, so I’m not sure there’s validity to that, even if teachers found the results remotely useful.
I’ve met a lot of teachers over the years, and I’ve yet to hear one tell me they need a standardized government test to tell which students are struggling. I sure as heck don’t know any who wait to see how their students did on the FSAs to figure out how to teach their classes.
Why I hate the FSAs
You can accurately predict FSA results by postal code. What the FSAs confirm each year is that children who live in affluent communities and have parents with high levels of education do well in school. Surprise, surprise. Not.
They also confirm that private schools that screen students based on academic ability and charge high tuition fees have better outcomes than public schools in lower-income communities that take all students who show up at the door, including those with special needs and those who arrive hungry, tired, inadequately dressed, and have little support at home.
We know this because government releases test results by school, and the privatization-promoting Fraser Institute uses the data to put out a “report card” on schools, complete with school rankings. It’s a perverse and misleading report that has been condemned and discredited by anyone who knows anything about education. It’s popular with real estate agents, however, who advertise homes as being close to “top schools”.
I learned to hate the FSAs when I saw the damage they did. Not only are they hurtful and demoralizing to staff and students at low-ranked schools (that may actually be doing incredible work), they contribute to declining enrollment in low-income communities that often have a high percentage of students who are learning English as a second or third language.
The former B.C. Liberal government brought in legislation in 2002 that enables families to go to schools outside their assigned catchment areas, as long as there is space available. It also encouraged competition and specialty programs (French immersion, international baccalaureate, fine arts, Montessori, etcetera) and competition between schools.
That led to parents who had the means—time, knowledge, language skills, a car—to put their kids in schools and programs outside their community. Lo and behold, enrollment in highly ranked public schools in affluent communities increased while it declined in lower-ranked schools.
Declining enrollment means trouble for a school. It puts them at risk of closing and at the bottom of the priority list for seismic upgrades, even if the building is very high risk. It means they may lose their vice principal and some of its non-enrolling staff, like librarians and counsellors. It can result in classes with a higher proportion of students with special needs or other challenges, which makes it harder to organize classes in optimal groupings for learning. That all creates a damaging cycle that weakens what is often the strength and glue of a community: the local public school.
Why do we still have FSAs?
The mystery is why FSAs, which are so controversial and outright harmful (especially when used to rank schools), are still in use. Even Premier John Horgan has been quoted in the news media as saying that 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" and that the results are used for political purposes.
Heck, in the 2013 election campaign, the NDP said they’d scrap the FSAs and replace them with a random-sample test until something better could be developed. What’s changed since then?
I’m hearing the education deputy minister is pushing districts to increase their participation rates, which may explain the change in approach at the VSB and the pressure that principals are putting on parents to have their kids write the tests.
If I was still a trustee, I’d defend parents’ option to opt out, particularly given that their kids’ results are used by the Fraser Institute to provide their misleading and harmful rankings.
B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring says the FSAs were designed to be a system-wide check and were never meant to be a meaningful measure of individual student progress. Teachers have much richer and effective ways to gauge student progress and identify challenges to inform their teaching than they’ll ever get out of the FSAs.
We never found FSA results useful when I was on the VSB, and we found that teachers’ assessments were far more useful in terms of determining where to allocate additional resources and supports.
It surprises me that here we are—20 years after the FSAs were brought in to replace the old provincial learning-assessment program—that a test that has been widely condemned by teachers, and regularly misused by the Fraser Institute, is still in use.
It’s even more confounding when you consider that B.C.’s new curriculum, which gives schools more flexibility in what and how students learn, is at odds with the concept of standardized testing.
B.C.’s public schools are recognized worldwide for their high student outcomes, which are a reflection of the quality of our professional teachers. Which makes me wonder why government, and especially an NDP government, choses to ignore the professionals when it comes to the FSAs.
Surely government wouldn’t impose some sort of standardized health evaluation to be administered to all B.C. residents at a set age if doctors told them it was pointless and a waste of time, and also harmful. And imagine if those test results were used to rank medical clinics and compare the health indicators in wealthy communities with those in low-income areas, with little regard for the poverty’s impact on health. It would be absurd.
FSAs may have been well intended when they were brought in, but when the professionals we trust to teach our kids are telling us they’re a harmful waste of time, we should listen. I support B.C.’s teachers in calling on government to scrap the discredited and misused tests.