FSA tests far too useful to boycott or kill

It’s important to know how we’re preparing our children for the challenges ahead.

It’s important to know how we’re preparing our children for the challenges ahead.

And it’s stunning, even tragic, that the teachers’ union campaign to kill the Foundation Skills Assessment tests in B.C. schools has made such gains.

The tests, introduced by the NDP government in 2000, provide a snapshot of student performance.

Every year, students in Grade 4 and Grade 7 write tests to assess their basic skills in reading, writing and math.

Of course, the results aren’t definitive. But they give parents a report on how their children are doing in developing basic skills that are essential for life today. (And no, report cards with their often bafflingly oblique comments are not a substitute.)

The results also identify classrooms, schools and districts where children are doing better than average in learning to read, write and do math.

That’s important. A teacher might have come up with great ways to help children soar in math skills.

But unless the success is measured and identified, the knowledge might never be transferred to other schools.

The value goes much farther. We have more than a decade worth of data now, information that’s invaluable for researchers.

The University of B.C.’s Human Early Learning Partnership, for example, used FSA data to look at the link between where children lived and how they did in school.

The researchers followed 2,648 students from kindergarten to Grade 7. Partly, the findings were expected. Children from affluent neighbourhoods had better skills, unsurprising given advantages from preschool programs to better nutrition.

But the study also found that even if students moved to more affluent neighbourhoods, their performance in basic skills lagged.

That’s important for anyone who cares about equal opportunity for children. The research shows the focus has to be on children’s lives from birth to the time the start kindergarten.

And according to the researchers, the study would have been impossible without the FSA test results.

The B.C. Teachers Federation has waged war against the tests. They take too much time, the union says. But six tests in 12 years of schooling hardly seems onerous.

Some teachers spend too much time in preparing students, the union says. But that’s a professional problem for teachers to deal with.

Results can be misused, the federation complains. Indeed they can; but it’s insulting to claim the rest of us are incapable of identifying misuse.

Schools do much more than help students read and write, the union argues. Which is true; but it’s not an argument against assessing progress in those skills.

Parents and policy makers know you can’t reasonably compare results from an expensive private school and a school drawing students from a poor community where many children are learning English as a second language.

But you can compare two schools and classes from similar rural communities. And you can learn something it one is much more successful in helping children develop the core skills for a successful, happy life.

The union’s opposition is disheartening. It hasn’t offered a pragmatic alternative.

The campaign seems aimed at removing any independent assessment of children’s progress in learning basic skills. That’s in the interests of the union’s members. And, legally, that is the first priority for the union.

But it’s not in the interest of students or of society.

It matters that children should be able to read and write and comfortably calculate interest rates and the costs of groceries.

The teachers’ federation has waged a fairly effective boycott campaign. And, on some level, many others in the system are also keen on the idea of killing one of the few measures that let us look at one aspect of how well our kids are doing in developing basic competence. Politicians are caving.

It’s sad time for anyone who believes it’s important for all children to have a fair chance at success in this life.

Footnote: The government undermines the tests as well. If the information was used to find ways of improving student learning – from anti-poverty measures to new approaches to teaching and learning – the government would have a much stronger argument. That has happened far too rarely.



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