January 14, 2012

Weighing in on the FSA debate, a boxing metaphor.

The turn of each year brings new goals, hopes, promises and...wait for it - the Foundational Skills Assessment (FSA), for students in British Columbia. Look in any local newspaper come January and the mud-slinging should already be underway. Who are the contenders for the title? Suiting are the usual foes. Weighing in, in one corner is the all powerful and reigning champ of top-down reform - the government (Ministry of Education). And in the other corner is the underdog - the teachers (BCTF). Refereeing this match-up is the community of parents. They try to be objective, but with all the rhetoric in this conflict, it can be rather confusing. Last (and possibly least), on the scorecard is the Fraser Institute. Booooo. Oops, did I say that out loud? 

The debate is not that old, but it is becoming quickly tiresome for all involved, as each political round is fought and each side tries to sucker punch the other to "knock them out". What's at stake? The well being and meaningful education of our children - they are the real losers in this melee. And there's the bell! 

Round 1:

The FSA began formally in the year 2000, and 2 years later the BC government passes legislation that promoted the values of choice, accountability and competition into the BC School Act. These are the hallmarks of what we would normally see in a privatized, fee-based system of education; rather than a public one. The FSA tests are written every year by elementary students in grades 4 and 7. The FSA consists of a set of reading, writing and numeracy tests administered, usually by teachers (often against their good judgement and protests) and administrators, to provide a "snapshot" of how well students are doing. 

There are 3 types of analysis used in the FSA. 
  • whether student achievement is improving over time.
  • an attempt to see trends at the school, district and provincial levels.
  • a look at how specific population groups of students are doing (based on ethnicity, Aboriginal status, learning needs, etc...).
You might want to get some smelling salts before you nod off! 

These goals are not necessarily bad in and of themselves; however more attention and questioning must be brought to the methods in which this information is gathered and how it is subsequently portrayed to the public. In my opinion, it is the misuse of FSA results by the Fraser Institute to rank schools that is alarming to any thoughtful educator or concerned parent.

The Ministry of Education proposes that the FSA provides important data to schools and districts for setting goals for improvement. Further, the FSA does not measure students' ability to memorize facts; rather their ability to use problem solving skills. Okay, not too bad so far...but the Ministry also claims that they work with school districts to provide support for students and to improve teaching and learning conditions for the coming year. (I will remind you that teachers in BC are currently in job action over this issue). This is where teachers lose our collective footing temporarily and stumble. It feels like a "low blow" to hear that, and I find it difficult to understand and see a correlation between FSA results and actual tangible support in the classroom. Over my 13 year career I have seen only a decline in support, the cuts sting and are deep! I might have to give that round away and catch my breath, but I'm not out!

Round 2:

The Ministry of Education speaks of the validity of the figures provided by the FSA that can predict the likelihood of students graduating on time. Ask any teacher you know whether or not reading, writing and numeracy are critical to a child's learning and future success!? I will suggest that the FSA may contribute to more of a cause of failure than a predictor of it based on current performance. If children get the idea that they just don't get it and don't get it fast enough for a test such as this, then what does this do to their self-esteem at a very early and critical age? There is nothing stated by the Ministry about the adverse effects of this kind of mass testing on future motivation to learn. My blood is pumping, I'm ready to launch my full counter-attack.

Teachers (BCTF) strongly argue that the FSA does not help teachers teach, nor does it help students learn. The FSA does not even accomplish what it sets out to do, which is to give parents a meaningful interpretation of their child's or school's results. It is noteworthy to say that when students are absent the school receives a zero score for that student which lowers the overall results of the school. This is something the Fraser Institute denies, but what happens for students who complete only portions of the test? What I know is, this happens frequently and the FSA has no capability of taking incomplete information. So if a student completes 39 out of 40 questions, it will show as "no result". 

Undoubtedly there is misinformation out there and we are not getting the whole truth. Regardless there are still parents who call schools to register based on the Fraser Institute scores. Teachers will tell you that there are so many more important factors in determining what makes a school successful. Overall, teachers are concerned about the FSA because we are trying to preserve and get back quality classroom working conditions and to emphasize authentic, meaningful context-specific assessments. I think that was a good round, but I'm not sure who took that one!

It's time between rounds to shed some light on what standardized tests do. What are the true benefits to large scale assessments such as the FSA? Joe Kincheloe says in his 2005 book, Classroom Teaching, that standardized tests follow a reductionist model which means they are:
  • over critical
  • performance driven
  • learning in isolation
  • disconnected subject matter
He says we need a "re-conceptualized" model, where learning is democratic, process driven, and is part of authentic learning and experiences. (I have written about this in previous posts on the roles of students and teachers.) Why does the government feel it is necessary to do this analysis and rigidly control the work of teachers (who are professionals!)? More importantly, why does the Fraser Institute need to publish and rank schools against each other? Hey, wait a minute, now that I have taken a rest to reflect on this in my corner, I see that these 2 foes are working hand in hand against us teachers! I will need to "jab" and defend my way through these thoughts and questions, and hopefully get some support before I lose my strength and have to throw in the towel!

Round 3:

The FSA has been brought in as a reaction to the current state of education that in many ways is not cutting it. This measure only serves to appease public dissatisfaction temporarily. Kieran Egan says that, "This catastrophe of incompetence makes it seem as though they ought to do something - anything to maintain respectability". When members of the public understand that these types of analysis do not make meaningful changes; that is why there are willing to fight with the underdog. It's time to get that second wind and dig down deep! 

The philosophy behind standardized tests goes all the way back to Plato, where the core concepts are all that matter. Unfortunately, our society continues to drive this idea of competition and success ahead, without really examining its implications. David Orr says in his 1991 article, So What is Education for?, "For the most part we labour under a confusion of ends and means, thinking that the goal of education is to stuff all kinds of facts, techniques, methods, and information into the students' minds, regardless of how and with what effect it will be used." Kieran Egan has written about the problems facing public schools in his 1981 article, The Erosion of Education. He also believes that we have a "pre-conceived notion of what schools should do", and this is what he argues leads to strong constraints and pressures on our school system and consequently on the mastery of certain skills in our children. 

We need to ask ourselves, with the turn of a new year, what are our goals and intentions for education?. So what are we teaching children? And how are we teaching them? It's good we caught our breath in between rounds back there, because this is a marathon match with much more to come. What we have then is schools serving utilitarian purposes, preparing children for society's purposes. But what if we want to promote new ideas and not just maintain the status quo? How do we promote the idea of innovation, imagination, collaboration in a suffocating education system? We don't want a "No Child Left Behind" scenario here! Putting a number to a problem will only give false hope and even despair. Further, ranking offers a fleeting sense of identify, but it will not solve our current condition. Nothing essentially changes in the way of reading, writing, or numeracy thinking because of the FSA. Egan says, "Mass testing for minimal competence, with legal sanctions to enforce them, will draw down to the vacuum of minimal standards of all those teaching and learning bodies subject to it. To ask for so little is to expect even less". I'm feeling rather good now, because I have exposed a few weak areas of my opponents with a few well landed blows, but it's not time to declare victory yet!

Round 4: 

It is straightforward to say that ranking schools distracts from what we should be focusing on - learning. Scores taken out of context provide no meaning or relevance. The Fraser Institute oversimplifies what schools and families bring to learning (that's right, parents are on our side now, we needed to join our forces to win this battle!). The FSA results do not take into account the true learning needs of students, the change-over in population, extra-curricular achievements, the dedication of school staff to support children. If you were to look at the scores for my school over the last decade, you would not necessarily see the high quality of teaching (teachers with Masters degrees and specialty training in a number of areas). You would not see the hours of dedication in meetings and filling out doctor's reports and Individual Education Plans (IEP). You might not be able to quantify the development of ongoing caring relationships between staff and families in our community (often I am teaching the 2nd or 3rd child in a family). You might miss the progress and "success" of many of our most needy students because they do not show up on the FSA results. We are a designated "vulnerable" school with a fluctuating population, AND (not but) we love where we work and who we work with! Ranking will only undermine our efforts to make a difference in the lives of our students and families. Despite lagging resources and inadequate, declining support; we are a teaching staff that sticks together, year after year, giving hope, continuity, and encouragement to our students and families. In turn and in time, these students will make leaps an bounds and become hopeful, productive members of society who know how to interact with others and solve problems - because that is what we do every day. We model flexibility, integrity, imagination, courage, and collaboration every day. The Fraser Institute can never understand or put a number on that! 

It's time for a one-two combination! Instead of more intense measures or even random sampling efforts (this is one of the proposals), what about changing what really matters? I absolutely refuse to spend time on "preparing for the test". What is more important to me, and my students, is that ongoing, meaningful work that we are doing together. Out of that I will put my assessments and spur them on to greater things. What are we teaching our children about the value of the work we are doing, if we drop everything we are doing, to prepare for a one-time test? How will they interpret this? In this match there are no real winners. It seems as though it has been rigged from the beginning, we deal more with illusions than reality when we are up against the government and their private, corporate buddies like the Fraser Institute. The score? Whether we agree with it or not, we (teachers) are often not seen as powerful or capable enough to overcome; however, if we continue to focus on good learning, authentic assessments and really helping our students to become critical thinkers, then I think we will come out on top. We will leave this fight a "draw" for now.

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