Foundation Skills Assessment: Another Dirty Trick

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By Rachel Goodine

The FSAs, or Foundation Skills Assessment tests, administered annually in British Columbia since 2000 to students in grades 4 and 7, are once again under way. They began on January 14 and will continue until February 22, 2013. In the meantime, the debate is on.

For many, it’s simple: How is testing our children and being notified of their progress a bad thing?

Well, that’s the problem. The BC Liberals are hoping the public will buy this overly simplistic defence of the FSAs. The Ministry of Education’s webpage states the tests will give a “snapshot” of student aptitude in reading, writing, and math as well as “enhance student performance”, although how is not clear.

It claims the purpose of the FSAs is solely to capture this so-called “snapshot” and that it does not support the use of data drawn from the tests in school ranking. They do, however, support making the results public, which end up being used by the right-wing, pro-privatization “think tank”, Fraser Institute.

For those who don’t know, the Fraser Institute is a privately run Canadian “think tank” that does not rely on government funding, rather on cash from foundations and organizations also pushing neo-liberal agendas such as the Donner Canadian Foundation, ExxonMobil, and the Koch brothers. The registered charity denies climate change and supports the privatization of Canadian liquor stores, healthcare, and of course, education.

So it comes as no surprise that the Fraser Institute boasts the achievements of private schools that rank higher than public schools on the annual public “report card”, a ranking of schools that is lapped up and published by corporate-run, mainstream media. They don’t point out the fact that private schools decide for themselves which students are accepted into their academies, leaving out many special needs students and of course students from lower socio-economic backgrounds who cannot even afford enrollment.

Inner-city and rural schools get lower rankings, with Fraser Institute preferring we believe that teachers are not doing a good enough job in these schools, while ignoring other variables such as poverty, less funding from parent advisory committees (PACs) to support student needs, and increased numbers of special needs students in those schools compared to private schools that often report having none.

Add this to the slashes in funding for Special Needs Teaching Assistants in BC, leaving teachers to scramble to respond to the needs of all of their students, and these schools are bound to “fail” under the Fraser Institute’s standards. They claim in this video that since a few schools located in poorer neighbourhoods ranked fairly well, that this proves that teachers in those schools have found a way to overcome the adverse effects of poverty on academic achievement in students, basically claiming there is no reason the rest of the schools can’t pull up their bootstraps and do just as well.

This bogus claim goes against peer-reviewed research on trends related to socioeconomic status and educational achievement.1234 Parents from higher socio-economic backgrounds are often able to provide more reading materials for their children, can afford to take them on educational outings (such as the aquarium, museums, etc.), invest more money into early childhood education, and often place their kids in cross-boundary schools they deem to have better resources or score higher school rankings.56

All of these factors can lead to higher scores on standardized tests in more wealthy neighbourhoods. To ignore the variables that contribute to or hinder scholastic success, while extrapolating from individual student results to rank teacher and school performance is misguided. Nothing exists in a vacuum, therefore ignoring interconnected variables and putting the weight of student achievement solely on teachers’ shoulders leads to a false picture of reality.

The public needs to take into account the external variables that affect school success and question the validity of teacher and school rankings; something only possible through critical analysis, a skill not tested by the FSAs. To passively accept figures that are invalid without taking into account, reflecting on, and analyzing evidence is to ignore one’s potential ability to think critically.

Critical thinking, a skill needed in a fast-changing, technological, global economy, has a chance of being put on the back burner in the classroom when teachers are faced with the task of “teaching to the test”. The time spent in preparation for standardized testing takes away from meaningful collaboration, discussion, questioning, and production of knowledge.

The three identified “core subjects”, math, writing, and reading, while important, are not the only skills needed to live a successful and rewarding life. By choosing to ignore the assessment of other subjects, time spent in preparation for the FSAs has a chance of overshadowing focus on important disciplines such as Humanities, Art/Design, and other “non-core” subjects. If critical thinking is given a chance to develop, one becomes aware that not every question has a single answer, a notion not accepted by the designers of the FSAs, who have constructed the tests mostly in multiple-choice form.

By administering testing such as the FSAs to evaluate students, schools, and teachers, while ignoring the valuable skill of critical thinking, the Ministry of Education is promoting a populace of drones who learn by rote and unquestioningly accept knowledge that is administered to them as fact.

That’s probably a great thing for the BC Liberals, who wouldn’t want the electorate questioning the administration of a 5 million dollar test that is both unnecessary and redundant.

As Sandra Mathison, expert on educational evaluation, and professor in the Faculty of Education at UBC points out, select samples of students in BC already take the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) and the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, administered by the Counsil of Ministers of Education (CMEC; Canadian) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD; international), respectively.

According to Mathison, both tests, administered to a smaller number of students, less often, do an outstanding job of measuring student performance, even attempting to take into account critical thinking skills (although, it is arguable how well). Interestingly, in Finland, PISA results continue to be some of the highest in the world, where standardized tests are never administered in order to make schools or teachers accountable for results. This contrasts greatly with the US, where teachers are fired based on standardized test results, regardless of other factors that point to higher than satisfactory job performance.

I’d prefer we not head in that direction here in Canada, wouldn’t you?

Based on the fact that we already have quality testing for “student snapshots”, it doesn’t make sense that the BC Liberals find it necessary to administer FSAs to BC students. They say they do not support the use of the data for ranking purposes, so why not scrap the test altogether and allow parents to rely on report cards, assignment feedback, and communication with our children’s teachers to assess their educational strengths and weaknesses?

The Ministry of Education knows full well what the Fraser Institute does with the information every year, and its misuse misleads the public into believing that our public education system is sub-standard. Along with the classic neo-liberal tactic of underfunding a service until it is bled dry, the government is also taking advantage of the Fraser Institute’s school “report cards” in order to create the illusion that the best option is private.

Once education is taken out of public hands and placed in the hands of corporations, financial gain will be the main function of schools. Not to mention the fact that privatization would exacerbate the socioeconomic inequality we are already seeing, further marginalizing the disadvantaged by barring their access to education as well as eradicating teachers unions that protect worker’s rights.

The marginalized have just as much of a right to education as the privileged and I’ll be damned if I let my child’s right to education slip out of public hands. I call on all parents to boycott the FSAs, in protest of the BC Liberal’s pro-privatization agenda. Let’s stand up for an education system that fosters a critically thinking electorate with the intellectual wherewithal to push back and resist corporatism.

With that, I leave you to watch a rather entertaining, interesting, yet disturbing video about modern educational reform that drives home the idea that our school system needs to push critical thinking and discourage rote learning. If you are short for time, Robinson speaks about standardized testing and critical thinking starting around the 7:30 mark, however I highly recommend watching the full clip.

1William Julius Wilson, “The Declining Significance of Race,”Society, 15, no. 5 (1978): 11-21, 10.1007/BF02701609 (accessed January 25, 2013).

2Margareta Gregurović, and Simona Kuti, “Effects of Socioeconomic Status on Students’ Educational Achievement: The Example of PISA Study, Croatia 2006,”Revija za Socijalnu Politiku, 17, no. 2 (2010): 179-196, 10.3935/rsp.v17i2.918 (accessed January 25, 2013).

3 Melissa Baker, and Patti Johnston, “The Impact of Socioeconomic Status on High Stakes Testing Reexamined,”Journal of Instructional Psychology, 37, no. 3 (2010): 193-199, (accessed January 25, 2013).

4 Nikki L. Aikins, and Oscar Barbarin, “Socioeconomic Differences in Reading Trajectories: The Contribution of Family, Neighborhood, and School Contexts,”Journal of Educational Psychology, 100, no. 2: 235-251, 10.1037/0022-0663.100.2.235 (accessed January 25, 2013).

5 Dennis J. Condron, “Affluence, Inequality, and Educational Achievement: A Structural Analysis of 97 Jurisdictions across the Globe,”Sociological Spectrum, 33, no. 1 (2013): 73-97, 10.1080/02732173.2013.732866 (accessed January 25, 2013).

6Gosta Esping-Anderson, Irwin Garfinkel, Wen-Jui Han, Katherine Magnusun, Sander Wagner, and Jane Waldfogel, “Child Care and School Performance in Denmark and the United States,”Children and Youth Services Review, 33, no. 3 (2012): 576-589, 10.1016/j.childyouth.2011.10.010 (accessed January 25, 2013).

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6 thoughts on “Foundation Skills Assessment: Another Dirty Trick”

  1. Great piece. Explains clearly why this test is such a controversy. I had wondered why teachers were against this. Now I see that it is used for ‘other’ reasons than the Govn’t wishes us to believe. Teachers should not be judged on this for their ability at all.

  2. I’m not a fan of the Fsa tests but you are bing unfair when you lump all “private” schools together. My independent school accepts children of every special need and economic background. It’s fair to criticize the test process, but please don’t stereotype independent schools and disrespect the hard work of the educators who work there.

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