Saturday, 24 January 2015

Taking the Fuss out of FSAs

Its the time of year, when things like provincial exams and FSA assessments get a lot of attention. Certainly grade 10's, 11's and 12's in semestered programs have been anticipating, and, hopefully, preparing for their exams for some time. Provincial exams are seen as important, with exam scores factoring into a significant proportion of a student's final grades. I haven't met many staff, parents or students who enjoy provincial exams, but everyone seems to accept that, for now, they are a necessary part of school life.

Considerably more controversy always seems to swirl around the Foundation Skills Assessments (FSA) that are done by grades 4 and 7 students annually this time of year. In place since 2000, the FSA's are opposed by the BCTF, who run an information campaign suggesting that the assessments are not accurate indicators of individual progress, and that teachers do not get any useful information from them. The TF further suggests that the assessments should be an external measure of student learning provided by the random sample method, rather than have all children take the tests. Their campaign suggests that the tests detract from valuable learning time, and that the data from the assessments is misused to create unscientific school rankings. Their protests often conclude that there is little evidence that the tests provide schools with additional resources and with recommendations that parents write letters to principals to try to have students excused from the assessment.

Experience suggests that there are always at least two sides to every story. While considerable thought and energy has been put into the BCTF's campaign, it unfortunately overlooks some inconvenient truths. The assessment is not an optional exercise. It is a government mandated required assessment for all grade 4 and 7 students that schools need to administer, in an effort to determine how well the school system is teaching foundation skills in numeracy, reading and literacy. 

At the provincial ministry website parents can find information explaining the Ministry's position.  A pamphlet for parents tells how the FSA is a province-wide look at students' academic skills, a snapshot of how well BC students are learning in Reading Comprehension, Writing, and Numeracy. The purpose of the assessment is to help the province, school districts, and schools evaluate how well students are achieving basic skills, and to help them plan for improved student achievement. The FSA is designed and developed by British Columbia educators and the skills assessed are linked to the provincial curriculum and performance standards. The assessment takes very few hours of instructional time, and should not be considered a high stakes or stressful exercise for students. Information gathered from the assessment is available to the public, and while outside agencies may use this data for their own purposes, the ministry does not use it to rank schools.

Furthermore, the ministry suggests there is a high correlation between student success on this assessment and successful graduation. The facts bear out that most students handle the questions very well. In short, it is the ministry's expectation that when administered appropriately, the FSA will have no negative effects on students and provide the ministry, schools and parents with valuable feedback. As for the letters to principals, ministerial orders state that “Parents may request a Principal to excuse a student from an assessment in the event of a family emergency, a lengthy illness or other extenuating circumstance”.  Hopefully the FSA constitutes none of those things, and principals will welcome the opportunity to speak with parents about just what is involved. Working together, perhaps we can take some of the stress out of the assessment season and concentrate on ensuring that education matters.