Sound and Fury: The FSA’s

by Mr. Hugh Burke

Our kids at Meadowridge – well, the older ones anyway – have been writing tests recently. Children love to learn, but do not usually love tests. Tests are only one way to assess learning. We use all kinds of measures, including the kids’ own reflections, to ensure that our teaching and their learning are both the best they can be.

Some of our kids are writing the Foundation Skills Assessments, which have been a hot issue in the press for a few years, generating more heat than light. Some of our parents have asked me about these assessments.

On the one hand, the government says that the FSA exams are a good way to measure how the system is performing, and may help to inform parents and schools about local and provincial trends which are worth talking about.  It is worth noting that the FSA exams were brought in by the NDP, and now are being defended by the Liberals. There are no party positions, but these exams have become highly political.

On the other side of this emotional debate are some teachers and parents.  Most parents in the province are willing to have their children write the exams, but some are insisting that their children be excused, often based on advice from the BCTF, in letters home to parents. The teacher union is adamantly opposed to these exams, suggesting (amongst other things) that they are not worth the time that they take, that the data are not used properly, and that sometimes the kids have not covered the content in the exams. A lot of the opposition is because schools are ranked using the exams, which the BCTF thinks is wrong.  This position tends to demonize the Fraser Institute, and the attempt to evaluate schools. The larger issue is that some people want schools evaluated, and some do not; or, at least, not using numbers.

So, what is going on at our school, and for our children? Well, all of our kids write the exams (which is unusual). Next, we find the exams straightforward – they just test the stuff that the kids should be learning anyway. We do not have to “teach to the test”, and so we continue to focus on more complex learning.  The tests measure basic skills in reading and writing and arithmetic, which kids need for most of the other things they enjoy and need – creativity, critical thought, research, inquiry, reflection, technology, and so forth.  The FSA helps our school to be accountable, as long as we understand that no test measures everything, and that kids’ scores can vary for a lot of reasons.

Tests can make our kids anxious – but so do presentations, speeches, projects, essays, and many other things. We help our kids to recognize and deal with anxiety, because life is filled with anxious moments. It is also important to learn how to perform under pressure, just as every parent does, every day.

The FSA tests are a good way of figuring out if there are things we should improve. For example, a few years ago, we noticed that not enough of our kids were “exceeding expectations”.  We set up teacher study groups in how children learn to read and write. The result was that our kids began to read and write much better, and the exams show it. We now have great results. We do, however, continue to learn how to do even better.

We would never use the tests to evaluate a child, but if an issue shows up on the exam, we want to know why, and also how we can help. Such care leads to conversations with parents about their children – always a great opportunity.

Finally, we are ranked in first place by the Fraser Institute. When we first were ranked #1, I wrote a letter to every paper I could find, saying that we do not believe in such ranking; schools are much more than numbers. We still think so.

To summarize our position on the FSA exams: we think that they have some uses; they can help us to improve; they are not particularly challenging. We do not think that the rankings are honest indicators of school quality.

We do measure our school, in dozens of ways. That is the subject of my next entry on this blog. We measure what matters, and measure all the time. Our kids deserve it.