By Doug Sherrett (he/him), teacher, Vancouver
I tend not to be a letter writer. I enjoy the water-cooler talk and professional conversations about issues in education. I pride myself in being well-read and reflective about learning in today’s fluid environments. Uncharacteristically, today I am motivated to sit down and put some thoughts together to share about the Foundation Skills Assessments (FSA), the annual Grade 4 and 7 standardized test from the BC Ministry of Education.
This is my 17th year working as an intermediate teacher in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. I love working with my students and families; there are no dull days at Strathcona. Every hour, issues of culture, poverty, and mental wellness affect the needs of students, families, and, at times, staff. Teachers, administration, and support staff work diligently to meet these needs. I relish these challenges, and believe that over my time here, I have developed strategies, relationships, and work ethos to be effective every day.
So, amid the stress of managing regular learning in my class I am met with the anachronism of the FSA. The Ministry of Education’s website says:
The Foundation Skills Assessment is an annual province-wide assessment of all B.C. students’ academic skills in grades 4 and 7, and provides parents, teachers, schools, school districts and the Ministry of Education with important information on how well students are progressing in the foundation skills of Literacy and Numeracy.
Standardized testing, a summative assessment tool that was born in the last century, does little to support meaningful learning in schools. How can the feedback support learning when the “important information” comes back weeks or months later?
Sure, I get the government wants to have empirical valuation on their investment into K–12 education. I pay my share of taxes and want those dollars spent effectively too. However, the use of the FSA provides only a thin perspective of learning. And at what cost to students and teachers?
From a student perspective it represents significant time away from contextual classroom learning. Not just the time to write the test, but the time to learn how to write such a test. Anecdotally, it does not provide meaningful information to my students. It becomes a stressful environment for them.
For teachers it is a logistical drain on an already logistical challenge. How, when, and where tests will be administered, and communications to parents are all time burns for teachers. And the results do little to inform our teaching practice. We do not get specifics back on test results, simply where the students are relative to the rest of their provincial grade cohort. I already know this information thanks to the valuable formative assessment tools provided by the Ministry of Education and my school board.
Some parents like this ranked perspective. They want to see how their child measures up to others in their grade. However, the FSA only provides this relative measure on an important, but narrow, aspect of their child’s progress at school. And many parents who do not support comparative results are concerned about the negative effects this has on their child’s learning.
Is the FSA just a quick and limited measure for the Ministry and school boards to compare themselves? Is it worth the stress and time it takes to move through this process? To me it is not. Especially when these results are used in media, social and mainstream, to marginalize the learning students are doing.
School rankings that come from FSA results can have an enormous impact on a school’s sense of pride. Low-ranking schools, which often come from low-income neighbourhoods, are especially affected. Rankings do nothing more than pit schools and neighbourhoods against each other.
While there is never a good time for a standardized test, the fourth wave of the worst global pandemic in recent memory is a particularly bad time for one. The students and families in my class are dealing with so many daily stresses right now, let alone the health and well-being impacts of COVID-19.
When we compare the small value of this archaic measurement to the cost of students’ social-emotional well-being, the hours of lost learning time, and the related stress on teachers, we see the cons significantly outweigh the pros. Please, let us rethink the FSA to save future generations from a time-consuming, stressful practice that does little to improve learning outcomes.